Thousands of albatrosses die needlessly every year as the victims of longling fishing. They are attracted to the baited hooks, get caught and are dragged under the water and drown.
Fishermen are often unaware of the simple, cost effective techniques that when used rapidly reduce albatross deaths.
In 2005, along with a number of our BirdLife International partners, the Albatross Task Force was formed. These men and women are the world's first international team of skilled, at-sea instructors.
Since their formation, there have been a dramatic reduction in the numbers of albatross and other seabirds killed. This is a sure sign that Albatross Task Force members really are getting something practical done to help save albatrosses from extinction.
This blog follows the trials and tribulations of the Albatross Task Force as they work onshore and at sea, spreading the message about these life-saving techniques.
I have been on the high seas fishing vessel Tami S II. It is the largest and most modern longliner of the Chilean pelagic fleet. This factory freezer vessel is 53 m long and can remain at sea for three to four month periods, setting lines of 60 nautical miles, each holding over 1,700 baited hooks.
We set off from the port city of Coquimbo on 14 July at 1 am and headed west. After a couple of days' steaming, we set the first line at 30°S and 80°W. In this area, we had great fishing, including swordfish (our target species) and other species such as yellow fin tuna, butterfly kingfish and sharks. We were also accompanied by a large variety of albatross, petrels and storm petrels.
On 23 July, after the first seven sets, the ship's engineers and I installed the tori-line prepared by members of the Albatross Task Force (ATF) Chile team. It was soon obvious that the tori-line needed some changes in its design. We made some corrections to the set-up and were then able to continue using it. The vessel was also using increased hook weights (75 g and 80 g instead of a more typical 50 g to 60 g), which helps the line sink faster and out of sight of the seabirds.
By the time we were setting the 19th line, the weather had deteriorated with wind speeds reaching 30 knots. The fishing master decided to set shorter lines reducing the number of hooks to 1,100. The strong winds and high seas caused great difficulty in setting with the tori-lines and for this set it was not used.
The next day, as we hauled the line we found nine seabirds had been hooked and drowned during the set. This included six black-browed albatrosses and three white-chinned petrels.
I could see that under the fierce stormy conditions, despite heavier weighting, the hook line remained at the surface for longer, with the bait floating and washed by the waves and wind. Rough weather and sea conditions are surely major causes of seabird mortality on this occasion and a complicated problem for the Albatross Task Force.
We were using two types of bait, squid and mackerel. We used a higher percentage of squid (60 %) per line, which increased throughout the trip up to about 80 % squid. One of my observations was that the white squid bait presented a more obvious target than the blue mackerel and increased incidental capture of seabirds. On top of this, further south toward 32°S, the abundance of seabirds increased, compared to our previous position.
Six weeks had passed and we entered September, the month in which Chile celebrates Independence Day 'dieciocho de Septiembre' (18 September). For the Chilean national celebrations, the company had sent a whole lamb so the crew could enjoy a BBQ in the typical fashion.
The crew morale was flying high in preparation for the approaching party. However, a day before the 18th, as a line was being hauled, an accident occurred.
The hook line - under tension from the weight of a shark - snapped, firing the 80 g weight at great speed at one of the fishermen. The weight struck the poor man on his left cheek, provoking alarm amongst the crew.
The injured man was collected by another of the company's vessels and taken to shore for treatment, where thankfully he was found to only have suffered minor injury. So despite the BBQ lamb, the Independence Day celebrations were somewhat dampened due to worries about the injured crewmate.
Throughout the trip I collected pictures of the attending seabirds and also of the incidentally caught birds. After haul number 62 on 2 October, the company instructed transfer onto another smaller vessel, the Elena S.
Onboard the new ship I shot 13 sets each of 1,300 hooks. The lines were set around the 30°50'S, 80°45'W zone and, although the vessel did not have an automatic setting device (to ensure constant setting speed of the line), incidental seabird capture was low.
This was due to the vast majority of sets happening at night. It was also noted that in this smaller vessel the captain had constructed his own tori-line, which was extremely effective. I also noticed that the crew on this ship was much more interested in how to prevent the capture of seabirds.
After three months and seven days at-sea I returned to port on 17 October. Once ashore, I met up with other fishing captains who commented that when birds came up on hooks on their vessels, they remembered discussions with me.
They recalled how they told their crews about how I'd be upset to see the dead birds and how I'd lecture them on the importance of mitigation! I can see that what I've said is becoming well known amongst the fleet.
In conclusion: firstly, despite having used extra weights and tori-lines, we still found heavy incidental capture of albatross and petrels. This is probably due to the type of bait which is highly visible against the blue background of the water and more buoyant than other baits.
Another factor was the weather. With string winds and heavy seas, it was difficult to use the tori-lines. Such a large modern vessel can keep fishing when other smaller boats would be forced to stop and wait for better conditions.
I also noted that the crew were nervous and worried when I was present onboard. They knew that I was there, watching out for the birds, and felt observed themselves, which worried them.
This shows how important it is to improve the awareness amongst the fleet, not only about the use of mitigation measures and seabird conservation but also the role of the Albatross Task Force instructors and Albatross Task Force Chile. The only way to find solution is to work closely with all the people related to the swordfish fishery.