Albatross Task Force

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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.
  • Monitoring small scale gillnet fisheries in Peru

    The port of San José is a quiet village where everyone knows each other. Most of the people who live there are fishermen, so it is not surprising that everything revolves around fish. The fishermen in San José are divided into two groups, those who go out just for one day trips (called “chalaneros”) and those who go out for one week or more (called “cortineros”). This time Philipp Hofmann of local NGO ProDelphinus accompanied one of the “chalaneros” as part of the Albatross Task Force project to identify seabird bycatch in small scale fisheries in the Humboldt Current.

    Philipp provides a brief account of his trip here:

    My day started at 8 in the morning. After my eyes adapted to the morning sunlight, I had breakfast at the local “Mercado”, consisting of a freshly made fruit juice and bread with avocado “pan con palta”. While enjoying my nice breakfast I called David, a local who works for IMARPE (Instituto del Mar del Perú) and knows everyone in the village.

    While talking to David I started to eat faster because I had the premonition that he was about to say: “Get your stuff ready and come to the beach, they are leaving in a few minutes!” At that moment he said exactly what I expected to hear. I paid for my breakfast and headed quickly back to my room to pick up my survival kit for the boat.

    When I arrived at the port, the fishermen were already waving their hands to signal that I needed to hurry up because the tractor was already pushing the boat into the water. The port of San José is pretty special because they use a tractor to push the boats in or pull them out of the water, so I jumped on the boat and we were away.

    The first few meters near the coast are always slightly hazardous because the waves are pretty strong and therefore the boat is shaking a lot and there is a good chance of getting completely soaked. Everyone in the boat is concentrated and focused on getting out of this dangerous zone. After passing a few thrilling moments everything became calm and we starting to talk. To my surprise a young guy about the age of 12 was also onboard. He told me that he was on holiday and spent his free time with his father, the captain.

    We passed other fishers from San José and even a traditional “totora” boat made from woven reeds and commonly used by the people of Lake Titicaca. To identify the best fishing area the captain turned off the motor and pressed his head against the deck of the boat to listen to the noises produced by the fish. Upon trying this myself I realized that one species (Paralonchurus peruanus), locally known as “suco” or “coco” make weird noises, presumably to communicate.  I learned that it’s not always necessary to be equipped with high-tech sonar to find a school of fish.

    After just a few minutes the nets were set and the crew now had to wait until sunset to retrieve the nets. During this time the crew do whatever they like, some like to talk, some use the time to relax or to take a short nap and others like to listen to the typical music of this region called “cumbia”.

    Entertainment comes from the various birds that pass by, like pelicans (Pelecanus thagus), blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii) and gulls. Beyond that there are guests who are not really desired but that show up from time to time, I am referring to the South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens) and fur seals (Arctophoca australis) who like to steal an easy snack right out of the net.

    After two hours of hard work for the fishermen hauling the nets, we returned to the beach as fast as we could. Here is where the real work takes place because they need to get the fish out of the nets, and fix them in preparation for the next day. Before this could happen we needed to pass through the breaking waves again. The return turned out to be much more difficult as the boat is literally surfing the waves to get back to the beach.

    Everything turned out well and we got back safe and dry, the tractor pulled the boat out of the water and the crew prepared for work on dry land. At this point my work was done, so I said goodbye to the crew and wished them good luck for the night. Handing me a bag full of freshly caught fish, the captain smiled to me and said “See you tomorrow!”

  • Chalaneros and Cortineros: at sea in Peru

    Fernando Valdez Ridoutt from ProDelphinus in Peru writes today's ATF blog:

    It is not easy to figure out everything Peruvian small-scale fishermen go through to get their catch from sea to market. I have been discovering this in the port of San José, first hand. I have been working hard to collaborate with these fishermen and have been welcomed as an observer on several different boats.

    Work begins between 8 and 11 in the morning. It depends on the boat, the fishing area and, most importantly, locating one of the tractor drivers who drag the boats from the beach to the sea! There are two types of fishermen in San José: demersal or bottom set nets (also called “chalaneros”) and pelagic or high seas driftnet fishers, also called “cortineros”.

    Below: Members of the crew work the nets at sea off Peru

    For chalaneros, fishing consists of one-day trips with three people aboard. Selecting a fishing area is like a race and whoever arrives first gets to choose where to set their nets. First come, first served. The nets are left in the water for a few hours before they are recovered and in the meantime the crew usually has time to have lunch, rest and talk.

    Below: The crew of a chalanero show some of their catch

    For the cortineros, the high seas fishermen, the trips are longer. They take at least 10 days and therefore require more elaborate planning. They need to coordinate with the rest of the crew, purchase food and fuel for their time at sea, and handle complex issues like getting back to shore before festivals or appointments that can’t be missed.

    Life at sea is the complete opposite of having an established routine, although you have a plan and expect everything to go according to plan - even if we think that the captain has the final say - nature has a way of rearranging things. When fishing is not going well, there is usually a pod of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) or common dolphins (Delphinus capensis), who entertain you, as if they knew you needed a dose of happiness.

    If fishing is good, the seabirds are often the first to arrive, from pelicans (Pelecanus thagus), gulls, blue-footed boobies (Sula nebouxii), to the guest of honor - the imposing waved albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) with their 2.5 meter wingspan. Waved albatrosses are standoffish but finally approach the boat to forage on the banquet of fish discards from the latest catch. If we are really lucky, we might even catch site of an austral migrant that migrate through these waters: the pink-footed shearwater (Puffinus creatopus). Interaction with all these seabirds are common in this in small-scale fishery.

    Below: Waved albatross forage on fishery waste:

    On returning to shore, your senses adjust little by little. A radical change occurs over a course of a few minutes from being in the middle of the sea to arriving in the chaotic port where everything happens so fast. After that comes the serene feeling of having completed my work.

    The only thing that remains is to thank these fishermen for their kindness. While spending time at sea is amazing, the friendships and familiarity developed with the crew over a few days at sea is the most important experience on each trip.

    Below: Fernando heading out to sea

  • A rare calm trip off South Africa

    Going to sea is the most unique aspect of this job, and my primary duty – to go on deep-sea trawlers and collect seabird interaction data. I’m one of only three people in South Africa doing this. We are responsible for keeping our eyes peeled and our minds open but focused on the task at hand: seabirds and mitigating bycatch. Three weeks into the job, I landed on my first commercial deep-sea hake trawler.

    For weeks I’d been mentally preparing to be at sea. When I tell my peers what I do reactions differ from gestures of excitement and awe to concerned looks and stern mutterings of safety at sea. I had done my safety at sea course, and it was not comforting. After learning about everything that could go wrong, and one day most likely will, my overly-active paranoia began to invade my thoughts.

    But then the day came, and Bronwyn (our team leader) accompanied me on my first trip at sea, to train me in everything from seabird identification to how to conduct BMPs (Bird Mitigation Plans) and lastly, but importantly, how to communicate and mingle with the crew. Bronwyn did a great job, it’s clear she’s been doing this for a while, and doing it well. From the moment I boarded the ship, I was relaxed and ready.

    I had been on a research vessel conducting trawls before, I was aware of seabirds and general life at sea. But life at sea is a metaphorical box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get. Everything can change – the weather, the fishing, the birds, the food, the seasickness… everything. But unlike being on land, there’s mostly nothing you can do about it. I was prepared for this.

    And it was the most chilled, calm trip Bronwyn and most of the crew have ever experienced! The weather was kind, and calm seas rocked the boat gently, with not a white horse in sight. It was hot! The sun was shining with only a light breeze. Not only did I not get seasick, but it helped the bird scaring lines (BSLs) be highly effective preventing any interactions! At the stern of the boat we are able to monitor the BSLs and warp cables whilst recording bird counts and seabird interactions with the cables. I was really impressed to see the BSLs being deployed correctly and seeing how they work in reality.

    Below: A crew member deploys the bird scaring line from the stern of the trawl vessel

    It was interesting to see the pecking order (that term makes so much sense now!), how the great shearwaters were chased by the yellow-nosed albatrosses, who were chased by the shy albatrosses, and so on. The squabbling birds fought over a single hake head, while many more floated around them. I watched how the birds instinctively steamed towards a fish, and suddenly withdrew as they saw the BSLs. These measures are really effective, and it’s a brilliantly simple solution to the seabird bycatch issue.

    Below: Seabirds squabble over fish discards behind the trawl vessel

    We spoke with the crew, asked them about life at sea, and engaged with them about seabirds and other interesting sightings. The crew were familiar with the ATF and I was impressed with their awareness of the birds. Conducting a harbour visit after the trip, a skipper told me he likes the birds, “they are my companions at sea”. I got the same impression from the crew. They told me when “the little black birds come, you know it’s going to be bad weather”, they were talking of the pintado (Cape) petrels, which mark the onset of winter and the rough seas that accompany it. I loved their anecdotes, and felt the previous ATF instructors had made an impact on them, making them aware of the birds and our mission to prevent the extinction of albatrosses and petrels.

    On the last day the crew’s nervous giggles evolved to proper conversations as they became comfortable with us. Their mission was to teach us how to fillet a hake, and we had the great opportunity to witness what goes on in the fish factory under the decks of the trawler. It’s important to know the entire process of the trawl, from setting the nets, the hauling, to the processing. By carefully observing each step, we are able to make vessel-specific changes that aid seabird mitigation. The factory was fascinating! Each person worked hard and fast, being assigned to a specific job – sorting the fish, gutting it, quality control, packing.  The energy was high, and I was taken aback by how much manual labour and hard work goes into harvesting our seafood. I appreciate every piece of fish even more now, and always look for the MSC certification. It was a fantastic experience and I thoroughly look forward to actively participating and contributing to seabird conservation off the South African coastline.

    Below: Chrissie amongst the crew on the forecastle deck