An Australian Antarctic Division scientist has jointly won an award for a new longline fishing device designed to reduce bycatch of seabirds.

The Underwater Bait Launcher, invented by seabird ecologist Dr Graham Robertson and Amerro engineering, was awarded the $45,000 WWF Smart Gear Competition in Spain today.

The machine is designed for use on surface longline fishing vessels such as tuna and swordfish boats.

It uses a capsule which carries baited hooks 6 metres underwater out of reach of seabirds.

Each year more than 300,000 seabirds including albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters are drowned on longlines when they dive after baited hooks.

Dr Graham Robertson said many species of seabirds are threatened with extinction because of longline fishing practices.

“Hundreds of millions of hooks are set off tuna boats each year, so if a new system to stop seabird mortality is not widely used soon, it may be too late for some bird species,” Dr Robertson said.

The machine cost almost half a million dollars to develop, but it is hoped it will retail for around $25,000.

“While the machine may seem expensive, you have to remember that a single tuna can fetch up to $2000 at the fish markets, so it’s not really that much of an investment for the fisherman,” he said.

The Launcher is currently being trialled in Queensland waters and will undergo further tests in longlining hot spots off South America next year.

The International Smart Gear competition has been running since 2004 and this year there were 71 entries from 27 countries.