The Albatross Task Force is working with the longline industry in South Africa, where recently we came across a very rare seabird in our waters – a Tristan Albatross, which was accidentally caught as we were conducting a routine trip onboard one of our local vessels. What makes this all the more distressing is the wealth of information we were able to find about about the individual bird thanks to a ring recovered from its leg.
In 2000 this bird was banded as a chick during a study at Gough Island, in the South Atlantic Ocean. This is the only breeding site for the species (except for occasional breeding on a nearby island). In 2004, Ross Wanless was doing his doctoral research and recorded this individual as a non-breeding bird performing its courtship dances. It took another six years before it found a partner, cement the relationship, and was finally recorded breeding for the first time in 2010. Like so many Tristan Albatross breeding attempts, this one failed because the chick was killed and eaten by predatory mice.
Humans accidentally released mice at Gough Island in the past, and they've since evolved into a gigantic, predatory form. Having failed in his first breeding attempt, our bird then took a 'sabbatical year', which most great albatrosses do because they need time to recover their breeding condition (it's hard work raising a single chick - it takes a full year from laying to fledging). During the recovery year he wandered in an unusual direction - east, into the Indian Ocean, and headed further north than we've ever recorded them before. He was attracted to a tuna longline fishing boat working in South Africa's territorial waters, off Durban, some 4,000 km away from Gough Island.
This just happened to be the boat where the ATF was performing routine monitoring of fishing operations. The bird grabbed a baited hook that was floating at the surface, and got hooked. It was slowly dragged underwater and drowned.
A sad story, but amazingly it encapsulates the Tristan Albatross's entire dilemma: their chicks are killed at unsustainably high rates by introduced predators on their remote breeding island, and adults are killed by the dozens of fishing fleets that their unimaginably vast wanderings bring it into regular contact with.
The ATF team in Cape Town has had this bird mounted for display as an incredibly powerful, tangible icon of the need to continue efforts to protect these amazing seabirds.
NOTE: Tristan albatrosses cannot be distinguished from a wandering albatross just by looking at them – they look identical. DNA sampling is necessary. We knew this bird was a Tristan as it was banded.
During the last month I was at-sea aboard a wet fish trawl vessel - a kind of trawler that keeps the catch fresh on ice instead of processing and blast-freezing like the industrial trawlers.
We sailed out of the port in Mar del Plata where I live in the north east of Argentina. The crew were already aware of our work as I have visited the vessel in port before. This trip they had agreed to collaborate with the ATF and test mitigation measures on board during their routine fishing operations.
On this vessel the crew included some 20 guys, it was a comfortable boat, spacious and I was able to work without any problem. This was my first trip on board a vessel from the wet fish fleet and it was interesting to see the differences in fishing techniques from the larger vessels I am more accustomed to. The deck is much closer to sea level as there is no processing factory below deck, so all fish catch is sorted and stored on deck.
Another interesting characteristic of these smaller vessels is that there is no-one to help with the various domestic duties on board, which is something you generally find on the larger vessels. This would become an important difference for me on this trip!
Having finished a long day on deck observing the abundance of seabirds and associated interactions with the fishing gear, plus testing mitigation measures I headed to my cabin looking forward to a good shower before getting some rest. The bathroom, as on most trawlers, is shared by many of the crew and the sanitary conditions depends largely on the good will of the other guys who are using it.
When I arrived at the bathroom with my towel and bar of soap, I rapidly realised that the entire room was flooded! The water had clearly not come from the sea and contained an infinite and suspect variety of colours. At that point, I wondered whether I would be able to muster the courage to enter the room to have a wash, but my need for a shower was greater than my fear of the impending doom brought on by the situation.
I stood for a few moments, paralysed while I looked around in hope for someone who might accept this unpleasant chore as their own, but I quickly realised they were not going to appear.
I had no choice; I grabbed a close-by container and started bailing. Once finished I sought out some cleaning products and gave the entire room a good wash. Everyone who passed the bathroom made jokes and I, with a long face, kept concentrated on my sorrowful task. This gave me insight into the fact that some vessels are very much ‘do it yourself’ boats and I had learned a quick lesson.
It is best to get to the bathroom early!
Below a picture of my cabin, with a sign in front of the bunk stating 'keep the cabin tidy'!!
An emerging mitigation measure – the Hook-pod is currently being tested in South Africa and have been well-received by local fishermen. Their first impression was a feeling of awe. I can recall one skipper at Cape Town harbour calling them ‘precious toys’. My response to him was that these ‘precious toys’ will definitely save the seabirds and probably improve fishing and even stand the chance of saving you money.
Personally, I think that this awesome feeling was heightened by the ease with which the hook-pods have been incorporated into the deployment and recovery of fishing gear. Typically fishermen don’t like testing ‘new gear’ that will compromise their fishing operations but the Hook-pod has slipped effortlessly into the daily fishing operations.
The other aspect that I think brought an element of delight to them was the hook-pods’ built-in safety aspects which prevents them from flying-back during hauling when fishing lines are under high pressure.
One skipper who is also passionate about nature was quick to appreciate that the hook-pods will not only be a solution to seabird mortality rates but will also help curb the thousands and thousands of disposable plastic light-sticks that are routinely dumped into the sea after use. He reiterated the fact that light-sticks are expensive and can be detrimental to the health of our oceans.
Moreover, the fishermen’s great delight was elevated when they heard that the final product of the hook-pod will integrate a weight as well as light. They are aware of the high costs of buying swivels and light-sticks and realise that these three-in-one hook-pods will be a elegant solution.
Fishermen working on the fishing vessel (F.V Ryoei) on which the hook-pods trials are currently being conducted were very impressed about the little time taken and ease with which they can be deployed. When the first fish caught on branch-lines set with hook-pods was hauled in, word spread on deck rapidly, shouting that it was indeed a fish on an experimental line.
Fishermen told me that over their years of fishing it pained their hearts to see a lifeless seabird hooked and drowned on fishing gear. I was touched to hear that from them and also motivated to do more for these precious seabirds. Apart from their utmost admiration of these hook-pods, fishermen also had a few suggestions about how they would like the final product to look like. Some fishermen suggested a constant light whereas others preferred the flashing light which is incorporated in the current design.
We are keen to continue conducting this work, but at the moment we are waiting for the tropical cyclone Irini to pass before we head back to sea again.
Until then, my desire to change the world will have to be on-hold, thanks to the tropical cyclone Irini. Tropical cyclone Irini couldn’t have picked a worse time to strike......... her timing really sucks.