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.
Mummified remains in the Atacama Desert suggest the first Andean tribes ventured closer to the coast some 7,000 BC, attracted by the plentiful and accessible marine resources. Today, the most northerly city in Chile is still an important fishing port, with numerous purse seine and gillnet vessels active all year, as well as other coastal ventures that include seaweed and shell fish gathering, plus a growing marine tourism industry.
Through the work of the Albatross Task Force we have been gathering as well, not shell fish but important data on vulnerable species interactions with the main fisheries. One of the lesser understood fisheries here is the gillnet fleet, which uses 40 to 200 metre-long monofilament nets which are set in around 15 m deep water. Up to eleven nets are deployed by each 10 m wooden vessel every day, powered by a small outboard engine.
Below: Juan-Carlos Gonzalez aboard a gillnet vessel off the coast of Arica, Chile. Photo: JC Gonzalez
The coastal waters of Arica are also important foraging grounds for green turtles Chelonia Mydas, which are resident off the coast all year round. During our monitoring of the fisheries we have discovered cases of incidental bycatch of these turtles. The individuals observed caught were released alive, but this may not always be the case. Unfortunately we also recorded seabird bycatch, and due to their limited dive ability the seabirds are normally found dead during the haul.
Below: A green turtle caught in gillnet fishing gear is left to rest before being released. Photo: JC Gonzalez
Monitoring fisheries is the first step toward understanding the level of not only seabird bycatch, but also other vulnerable species like turtles and dolphins. By doing so we can establish what factors contribute to the bycatch events and use this information to develop strategies with the industry to avoid sensitive times and areas or help modify the gear and operation to prevent the bycatch. The next steps are to trial the proposed mitigation measures to determine what solutions can be introduced in these fisheries to enable long-established fishing traditions to continue without endangering vulnerable species.
Last week our very own Clemens Naomab of our Albatross Task Force team in Namibia attended the "Fishtival", an event aimed at providing all stakeholders in the fishing/seafood/marine products sector with a platform to display or market their products and services. Clemens, pictured below, set up an Albatross Task Force stall to enable closer contact with fishing industry and local community, reaching beyond he contact we have with the fishing crew and captains on board the vessels.
There was considerable interest in the work of the Albatross Task Force, and the much sought after limited edition ATF Namibia T-shirts were handed out to a lucky selection of enthusiastic captains, who are actively adopting mitigation measures on their vessels. "The industry is very interested in our work at the moment, as fishery regulations are being introduced and we are very busy providing the technical support and guidance needed to make sure this process runs smoothly" reported Clemens.
Below: Clemens Naomab, ATF Namibia sports a fine yellow ATF Namibia T-shirt
One of the important aspects of attending fishing stakeholder events is to ensure that all levels of industry, not just captains and crew, are aware of the vulnerable seabirds that inhabit the same waters as they are fishing in and the urgent action that is required to prevent many of these seabird species from suffering continued population declines.
Namibian fisheries include a very large industrial trawl fleet, and a smaller longline fleet. Both these fisheries target hake, which is exported to Europe, predominantly for the Spanish market. The Benguela Current on the west coast of Africa is one of the world's Large Marine Ecosystems, characterised for the nutrient rich upwelling waters. The Benguela Current provides critical primary production that feeds the ocean food web, including important foraging grounds for albatross and petrels.
BirdLife's Albatross Task Force is supporting the uptake of seabird bycatch mitigation measures in Namibia, where the trawl and longline fleet are voluntarily using these measures in the lead up to full implementation of new fishery regulations.
Seabird bycatch mitigation measures for trawl fisheries are simple: a set of birds-caring lines are deployed behind the vessel to scare the foraging birds away from the trawl cables. Measures for the longline fishery include bird-scaring lines, which scare birds away from baited hooks, night setting and line waiting. The ATF has shown that together, these three measures can reduce seabird bycatch by over 95%.
Below: Seabirds devour offal discards from a demersal longline vessel in Namibia. Image by Clemens Naomab
One afternoon as my observations were coming to an end the first mate came to chat with me at the stern. He sees me sitting at the back of the boat days on end, staring at birds. “You’re job looks boring” he said, and I was quick to point out that not all birds were the same. I showed him the differences between a Black-browed albatross and a Yellow-nosed albatross and I could see his interest piquing. “I heard these birds could go extinct. I don’t see it, they are everywhere”.
These are fundamental moments for me on the boats – when the crew are open and honest enough to voice their opinions. It also creates a perfect opportunity to explain why seabirds are unique and more prone to extinction because of their life history traits. In short, they breed incredibly slowly (1 egg/year), have delayed sexual maturity (2-9 years) and are incredibly long lived (~60 years in larger species!). Imagine a breeding bird being killed – not only is that individual dead but the reproductive potential too. The breeding population lost a contributing member and with it decades of reproductive output.
Boats can attract thousands of scavenging seabirds, especially in winter months and when winds are strong. Image: Chrissie Madden
I also explain how mice on islands eat albatross chicks and fishing boats can kill juveniles and importantly, adults, and that’s how their populations are declining. Birds also tend to flock towards fishing vessels, which are essentially food hotspots in the ocean, especially in winter with high abundance. The great thing about attitudes is that they can change. I could see him thinking about the birds and linking it with his every day, fishing life. “I haven’t seen a dead bird in years. Not since we don’t have splices or grease on the warps (several fishermen have voiced this sentiment) and of course, the tori lines”.
The fisherman was keen to get a book on the birds so he could identify them – another birding convert – great success! He seemed initially sceptical about the plight of seabirds but with information seabird bycatch becomes a tangible concept and I could see him understanding more about the albatross life cycle and why they are so special.
Fishermen are keen to read the ATF seabird bycatch brochure.