Seabird ecologist, Dr Ben Sullivan, has won a $150 000 PEW Fellowship in Marine Conservation to continue his work on seabird bycatch mitigation and reduction, and safer fishing practices, in pelagic longline and trawl fisheries.

Dr Sullivan is the coordinator of BirdLife International’s global seabird program. He is based at the Australian Antarctic Division and works closely with former PEW Fellowship winner and Antarctic Division seabird ecologist, Dr Graham Robertson.

The three year fellowship will allow Dr Sullivan to continue developing and trialling a safer weight for pelagic longlines that prevents recoil of the line and the serious injury or death of crew in the event of a shark biting off the line while it’s being hauled. The ‘Safe Lead’ has been developed in collaboration with UK engineering firm, Fishtek, and is being trialled in Australian waters by Dr Robertson, and in southern African and South American waters by Birdlife International’s Albatross Taskforce.

'Traditional pelagic lines have a weighted swivel tied into the line and if a shark bites off the line while it’s being retrieved, the swivel can fly back towards the boat at speeds of up to 500 kilometres per hour,' Dr Sullivan says.

'The Safe Lead slides on to the line, instead of being tied into it, so if there’s a “bite-off event” it will slide down or off the line. The line will still recoil, but there’s no weight in it.' As well as improving crew safety, the Safe Lead reduces the risk of seabird bycatch by causing the line to sink faster, and anecdotal evidence suggests the weight can also increase fish catch rates in some fisheries.

Dr Sullivan says the PEW fellowship will allow the Albatross Taskforce to continue testing the impact of different weighted Safe Leads on fish catch rates in seabird bycatch ‘hotspots’ off South America and southern Africa. The money will also fund further development of a ‘bait pod'; a plastic capsule that covers baited hooks to prevent seabird bycatch.

'The bait pod has a pressure release mechanism that can be set to release at various depths, depending on the target fish,' Dr Sullivan says.

'When the pod is opened, the hook and the bait are released and the pod remains attached to the line. It can be closed when the line is retrieved, ready for the next deployment.'

Dr Sullivan’s work will also feed into broader seabird protection measures via the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels.