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.
Here in Chile, the team’s efforts have changed focus over the last couple of months from our usual at sea activities. We have taken time during the seasonal closure of the longline fleet to focus on carrying out capacity building and educational workshops for scientific observers. We’ve also been producing reports and evaluating our activities from 2009.
The work we perform with the observers is in direct support of the National Fisheries Institute. They are in charge of collecting information and monitoring the state of marine resources along the Chilean coastline. Although many of the observers spend a great deal of time onboard, they are yet to receive instruction in the identification of seabirds and the importance of recording incidental mortality. This is one of our objectives for the coming year.
An additional aspect this year was performing post-mortem and dissection on a couple of albatross specimens collected in relatively good condition. These kinds of activities are interesting and are of huge help when we consider the development of awareness raising opportunities. We can use these activities to help spread the message about the serious threats to seabirds in our waters and the results we are achieving. As well as indicating the large effort still needed to succeed.
I personally found the dissection of enormous interest. Working with the National Fisheries Institute and Vaparaiso University, we carried out this process on a juvenile black-browed albatross and a Buller´s albatross. The main objective was to prepare the specimens for future study and develop a collection of genetic, biological and ecological information for this group of seabirds.
It is important to make the most of a bad situation when seabirds are killed accidentally. Considering the conservation status of the majority of the albatross family, it is unthinkable to collect live specimens for such a study. Therefore when these beautiful birds are killed, the least we can do is to make sure their loss is used to highlight the threats they face, through education and improve our understanding of their biology and ecology.
After working the last year aboard trawlers I have now started to work on longline vessels that target deep-sea hake off the coast of Namibia. I have just completed a very successful first trip aboard the West Coast II. This vessel sets fishing lines up to 27 km long along the seabed.
During the 6-day trip, 130,000 hooks were set. I was able to present the background and seabird conservation issues to the crew and they all showed great interest in our work and objectives. I spent a good deal of time explaining seabird conservation and the importance of seabirds in the ecosystem. The skipper was very keen and provided me with all the assistance I needed. In return I distributed Albatross Task Force (ATF) brochures and a couple of our brand new Namibian ATF T-shirts, which were really appreciated.
As usual, most of my time was spent collecting data on the fishing activities and seabirds visiting the vessel. This is the best part of the job: watching the species we work to save in their natural habitat. However, like all good things there was a downside. As most of the line setting was done at night it was important to be up at around 3am to observe this. Then, hauling begins soon after the line is set, so having not slept, you have a full day’s work ahead. Even so, bird observations during the hauling process keeps you keen throughout the day.
The fish catches were generally low on this trip and there was a lot of loss to seals and other scavengers such as sharks. This is really frustrating for the fishermen as a damaged fish is worthless and wasted.
Sadly three white-chinned petrels were accidentally caught on hooks and killed. These vessels have the potential to catch large numbers of birds and we are looking to improve line weighting and include tori lines as part of mitigation for this fleet. These first trips are necessary to get to know the nuances of the fishing operation.
This trip marked the beginning of a research project showing the fishermen the benefits of mitigation measures. Namibia currently has no regulations requiring mitigation so we are conducting this research to show fishermen how good mitigation can reduce seabird bycatch and also prevent loss of bait so potentially lead to greater fish catches.
As my most recent trip on a trawl vessel started, we left the port of Mar del Plata into an enormous storm. However, I felt pretty good about everything and kept my thoughts to the task in hand.
The trip took us back to the same fishing area that I visited last time, but the target species had changed from common hake to mackerel. It was fun on the way out as we saw groups of whales as the ship steamed onwards. I spent my time preparing the tori lines to ensure we would be ready once fishing began.
At first the hauls were short and mainly set at night, to test the marks they were reading on the sounder. Then, once the crew were happy with their gear set-up I was able to standardise our mitigation measures and apply common protocols. When they change target species and fishing gear on these commercial vessels, they also change the speed at which they trawl. These things are subtle, but require attention.
The weather also changed and became generally good; there were two days of storms and in the midst of the rolling oceans we watched killer whales (orcas) hunting sea lions.
This vessel has a great observation platform, right at the top of the stern deck, so near to the seabirds that they pass close enough to reach out and touch. They didn’t show much interest in this trip though, as fishery discard was quite low and when it existed, it only lasted a few minutes. Because of this, the seabird interactions were relatively low. Seabirds are attracted to the discard in the hope of an easy meal, without discards there would be no seabird mortality. This is an important message for the future.
I improved the relationship with the crew and talked frequently with them about the issues surrounding seabird mortality in fisheries. They shared their thoughts and explained how they considered the main problem to be with the cable that tows an instrument that monitors the net at depth. They reported this cable was where most of the interaction occurred. This is one of the factors we monitor when on board. This ‘third wire’ enters the water a long way back from the vessel and can have serious impacts on seabirds.
In general it was a good trip, and another step in the process of introducing mitigation measures across this enormous fleet.