February, 2010

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Albatross Task Force

At sea and on land, we're working hard to keep the world's albatross populations afloat. Find out how.
  • Get it done and and get it done now!

    After a couple of months working in the laboratory and carrying out tests on small vessels the great day arrives. I am to join a large industrial trawl vessel to try out the performance of the tori lines and the Tamini Tabla under commercial fishing conditions, and on exactly the kind of vessel this was designed for.

    I travelled back down the Argentinean coast to Puerto Madryn in order to join the vessel. This meant a 14 hour bus journey before arriving to meet the ship’s officers and crew, many of whom I already know. I retired to my cabin and set-up shop for a trip that would last over 40 days in some of the world’s most powerful oceans.

    For several days we sailed towards the fishing grounds, so I took advantage of this time to arrange the tori line and adjust it to the vessel’s specifics. This is important, as each vessel is slightly different, so mitigation measures must be orientated to suit the conditions. Having set the buoys, ropes, the Tamini Tabla towed device and weights on the aft deck, I found a space that would become my new ‘office’ for the coming weeks.

    Happy with the set-up, I tested and tried out the devices before we arrived at the fishing grounds, but I hadn’t prepared sufficiently for two problems which would become fundamental during the trip: the horrendous weather and the cold. Of course! We were in mid-winter in one of the world’s harshest seas!

    The bad weather reduced the days that we were able to set foot on the outer decks. The waves repeatedly washed over the entire vessel, taking anything that was not strapped down with them. The cold further restricted the time I could withstand the days that were calm enough to be out on deck. From 45 days at sea, several were lost completely to bad weather. We had it all; snow, hail, rain, gigantic waves and full storm force winds on a frequent basis during the trip.

    The tori lines and Tamini Tabla worked extremely well despite the terrible weather. Additionally, the officers were really supportive and interested as I included them in all the planning and details. They had been part of the first design stage of the Tamini Tabla in 2008.

    During the trip, we discussed the changes needed for such challenging conditions. They each gave their opinions and thoughts on the progress, the streamer materials and strength of the Tamini Tabla being of particular interest.

    We also carry out periodical surveys of seabird abundance and species assemblages that interact with the vessel and fishing gear. We found very similar assemblages as on previous trips, although south of the Falkland Islands / Islas Malvinas we saw a large amount of the white morph southern giant petrels. It’s a real spectacle to see over 50 of these birds flying together.

    The activities during the trip included experiments to test the conventional tori lines against tori lines with the Tabla as an additional towed device, and against a control treatment of no mitigation.

    The large number of black-browed albatrosses that were caught on the trawl cables was not unexpected, but even when prepared to see such things, they can still cause great concern. This trip, whilst mitigation measures were not being used (our control condition) I witnessed three times the mortality I had on previous trips. To see the death of these animals and at the same time working to mitigate the issue is a truly moving experience.

    We must get something done and now!

  • Ninety days at sea - the final part

    Luis with a De Filippes petrelThe third part of my diary from the 90-day trip onboard a longline fishing vessel in Chile is a summary of the last two weeks and also a more personal point of view of life at sea. In general, a fishing trip of three to four,  or on occasion five, months at sea is extremely exhausting; not only physically but also, and much more so I believe, mentally. 

    Personally, when we hit day 72 on the high seas my enthusiasm started to fall. It’s amazing how the isolation of being 400-500 miles from land, the enclosure, the monotony and frequent bad weather was so tiresome.

    The vessel was relatively comfortable and large compared to others I’ve been on, but after a couple of weeks the spaces and distractions are all exactly the same. The bad weather, waves over six metres high and winds over 60 knots affected everyone the same mentally. Perhaps only the most dogged of seafarers withstood the passing of time onboard.

    Even so, some circumstances will overcome any man. We received news from land that one of the crewmen’s fathers had passed away. There was no way of him getting back to attend the funeral, as we were well over three days sail from the nearest port. This kind of situation really makes you appreciate human fragility in every sense, not only confronting the force of nature but also the harsh facts of life.

    That said, these events bring out the most human characteristics in us; companionship and camaraderie. Such things flourish between even the most weather-beaten under these circumstances. It is here that I find myself thinking of the beauty of the open ocean, the birds, whales, dolphins and fish amongst the thousand other souls afore the backdrop of her intense colours, dreamy sunsets and clouds that melt into the sea.

    All this beauty that I have lived during the voyage contrasts with the exhaustion, the dangerous work onboard, the accidents, distance from loved ones, the horrendous weather, the difficulty of sharing a confined space and the feeling of bearing witness to so much death – sharks, tuna, swordfish and albatross. It is all, absolutely everything, intense, it is multiplied a thousand-fold and it makes me think and reaffirm that nothing in the world is good or evil, it just is.

    Each of us give it the connotation that we feel convenient, the most precious of human gifts – that capacity to decide. You decide to be part of something or not; you decide to be part of the problem or the solution; you decide to fight for something remain indifferent. I decided to work for the conservation. I decided not to judge the industry for their work, which is an incredible sacrifice, and often badly paid.

    In the end I made the decision to get involved rather than worry and complain about the state of the world. I decided to work day after day to save the albatross ‘with’ the crew and the fishing companies instead of ‘without’ them. I am absolutely aware that this is not an easy task, that in a couple of years it is not only necessary to mitigate but also to educate, to be consistent and not lose the hope  that this can all change, maybe not immediately but with time. 

    I arrive in port, I am content to have achieved the research objectives and use of the mitigation measures but I am exhausted and desperately need to rest. The albatrosses and petrels in the central north of Chile will have to wait. My colleagues will keep things moving, I must rest, but I am decided! I will return with more energy and together we will keep working to save the albatross!