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 spent time at sea for my first trip as an instructor onboard a 35 m longline vessel. The trip was short, lasting just eight days, so we only managed to set three lines before returning to port.
During my time onboard, I discussed the need to reduce the access of the seabirds to the baited hooks while they are setting the line.
Together with the captain and various members of the crew, we incorporated some Time Depth Recorders (TDRs) onto the main line. These are small devices that, when deployed record the time and depth as the line sinks, ultimately giving a sink rate for the line. This gives us a better idea of how the line, and therefore hooks are behaving in the water during the set.
While I was at sea, five seabirds were captured, three of which were black-browed albatrosses, one was a spectacled petrel and one was a yellow-nosed albatross. Fortunately, the last two were entangled on the gear and we were able to release them alive with no visible signs of damage.
Having been selected as one of the first two Albatross Task Force (ATF) instructors in Uruguay, I arranged my first trip to sea.
The Uruguayan longline fleet had been less active recently due to relatively low catches, but seeing that the vessels were starting to head out again, I secured a position aboard the 'Puyuguapi', a 30 m longline vessel targeting swordfish. Luckily the weather was good for the trip, which lasted only seven days as the vessel suffered some damage.
Despite this, two lines were set and although the target catch was poor, we were lucky as there was also no seabird catch. I was able to take positive aspects from the short trip such as learning more about the behaviour of the seabirds around the vessel, develop a working relationship with the crew onboard and help explain our work and the need for seabird conservation.
This last point is of great importance as we need their collaboration in the project if we can be successful. Most of the crew live in Paloma, which is my home town and I know many of them since childhood.
We discussed the imminent construction of a bird-scaring line that we will help them build, together with the crew. I presented them with some educational materials from Uruguay's 'Proyeto Albatros y Petreles', including the seabird bulletin 'Atlantico Sur'. The fisherman liked that a lot as it demonstrates the positive results from work that they have been collaborating with such as returning identification rings from dead birds, the use of dyed bait and releasing live birds.
The year started with a big decrease in the numbers of longline fishing vessels active in the swordfish fishery in Chile. Currently there are now five vessels at-sea and two industrial freezer ships waiting to leave port. That gives us a total of just seven vessels.
As each vessel prepared to leave port, I spent time with the captains to discuss the information in the last workshops and to present them with some extra educational materials plus the new Chilean Albatross Task Force (ATF) T-shirt!
As the first five boats out started to return one by one, I visited each of them to see how the fishing had been during the first trip of the year. Catches have been decent, considering it was the first trip of the year and none of them reported much non-target catch such as tuna, shark or other frequently-caught species in this fishery.
The fishing zones were mainly between 27° S and 35° S and along the longitude of 080° W and 083° W. All commented that there were very few seabirds around at this time of the year and joked that 'there weren't many fish, let alone birds!'
The smaller vessels started to head out for their second trip and I asked that if they don't carry an observer could they bring back any details of seabird bycatch and any samples so that we can identify them correctly.
Also, with the recent enforcement of mandatory streamer lines on all vessels, captains and officers were keen to discuss the correct design and construction with me. I demonstrated where to attach the bird scaring lines on each vessel and took them through the steps of building them so that they don't interfere with the fishing operations.
I am hoping that this year we will see a dramatic decline in seabird bycatch thanks to the use of bird scaring lines. The main issue is convincing them to use them all the time and use them correctly.
I will keep working closely with the captains and crew, who certainly have the will and interest to cooperate with the Albatross Task Force.