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.
I recently headed down to Hout Bay, South Africa to join a demersal (bottom) longline fishing vessel in a fishery we have recently begun working with again to improve and update mitigation measures.
Upon arrival to the harbour I found that the boat that I was supposed to join had already left port and left me behind. This was not through any particular bad intentions, just an unfortunate miscommunication between the company and the vessel. A simple but critical difference between 12pm and 2pm! Fortunately when I got to the harbour I found that the sister ship was still in port and was due to leave in a few minutes. So I hopped on board and away we went!
The trip was a good one, despite the usual occasional wooziness due to the mix of rough seas and small boats. I was happy to see the elusive wandering albatross soaring around our vessel in search of discarded fish. There were also large numbers of great shearwaters surrounding our vessel for the duration of the trip – I don’t remember seeing this many ever in my life. During many of my other sea trips the great shearwaters have been a rarity, but it is just a sign of the stark seasonal changes in seabird abundances.
Below: A great shearwater. Oli Yates
These smaller birds are adept divers, and in many longline fisheries they are able to dive down and bring baited hooks back to the surface where albatrosses steal the bait and become hooked and drown. This is known as secondary hooking. Gladly on this trip there were no such instances and I was able to work with the crew to improve the bird-scaring lines to help maintain the birds away from the vessel.
Below: The vessel crew prepare to haul the line at sea off South Africa. Bokamoso Lebepe
Crystal clear waters, crisp white sand, and cool shady palm trees are not the first thing that springs to mind when on a deep-sea fishing trawler. But we were in Honolulu, the proverbial paradise we see on TV, “where everything is hunky dory”. That is how my skipper, Manfred, described the fishing grounds we were trawling at. A fishing paradise in the Atlantic, “we always catch nice fish here, big hake. They are beautiful, like Honolulu” said Manfred, who saw my interest in the subject. He explained that before the Grid system (which demarcates South Africa’s EEZ into quadrates) fishermen used the DECCA system – an old school way of naming the location of the fishing grounds. Each fishing ground under the DECCA system has a unique code, but colourful nicknames, such as our Honolulu, are a much more interesting alternative to the conventional ‘Grid 462’ we use today. Manfred went on to tell me about a fishing ground that was unnamed. A few years ago, the captains were talking about this unnamed fishing ground, and decided on ‘Groovy’ as one skipper was drinking a Groovy soft drink at the time. (Captains in the same vicinity always chat to each other over the radio, and we can follow some interesting chatter while in the Bridge). Other names are ‘Christmas Island’, due to the great fishing around Christmas, and ‘Long Island’, and it is surrounded by underwater rocks, looking like an underwater island.
Below: The real Honolulu!
These little anecdotes were entertaining, and I was very keen to see if the haul would hold up to this ‘Honolulu’ reputation. Sitting on top of the Bridge of this side-haul trawler, I was conducting my seabird observations. One of my favourite moments during observations is waiting for the net (codend) to reach the surface. The net trails past the stern and is being slowly reeled in, while the codend filled with fish is still underwater. Firstly, if there are Cape Gannets, they will start diving with the approach of the codend near the surface. Then the water turns a beautiful turquoise-blue, bubbles, and voilà – a bag of fish erupts from the ocean.
Below: The cod end being brought up on deck. Photo by Chrissie Madden
The birds go crazy and start fighting over the catch. We reeled in the haul, and these were beautiful, large hake. Welcome to Honolulu! I ran to the skipper and said in excitement “We’re in Honolulu!” and he laughed and admired the catch with a content smile. A few days later after moving around a few fishing grounds, we had lovely fish again and I knew we were fishing in Honolulu.
Below: Albatross flock around the stern of the vessel as the catch is landed. Photo by Chrissie Madden
I was very impressed with the fish, great quality and excellent size. This vessel was a much smaller trawler than I’m used to (and hence unstable in bad weather) – on the plus side I was very close to the seabirds, as they were almost eye level to the boat! I used this opportunity to chat about the birds with the crew, and showed Manfred the seabird ID sheet. He pointed to the Giant Petrel and said “This one. When he comes, you know there will be good fish. He flies from far”. Another interesting anecdote I consciously kept an eye on. I do know that Giant Petrels have an excellent sense of smell, and like most seabirds, travel vast distances in search of food. Since the skipper told me that, each time I see a Giant Petrel I make a mental note to check the size of the haul – and until now I have not been disappointed.
Below: A Giant petrel forages on discards. Photo by Chrissie Madden
On my most recent trip aboard a deep-sea trawler, the weather wasn’t as compassionate as the last one! One night my sleeping bag actually flew off me as we rocked and rolled on the sea like a cork in a bucket! You come up with creative and very unusual sleeping positions to steady yourself as the boat rocks about at night. Your body gets used to this, and sometimes it’s almost fun, like a roller-coaster ride.
We left the iconic Table Mountain towering over Cape Town Harbour at 8pm sharp. I can only imagine it’s the most beautiful port in the world. The birds at this time of year are incredible. We were surrounded by hundreds of Cape Gannets flying around the vessel, squabbling and squawking and diving deep for fish offal - they have such enchanting characters. The giant petrels, huge and hideously beautiful, gathered around the offal discards while albatrosses glided around us, circling over many, many seals.
Below: A giant petrel. Photo Chrissie Madden
As a reminder that not only birds suffer interactions with fisheries, we caught three seals on three separate occasions. I saw one deep within the net while it was on the deck waiting to be emptied. A dazed and confused Cape Fur Seal emerged covered in scales and took deep breaths to recover. After resting for several minutes, the seal hopped up and slid back into the sea. They are amazingly resilient animals.
Below: A Cape fur seal emerges from the net. Photo by Chrissie Madden
The Bird Scaring Lines (BSLs) were working well, but one streamer had slipped a couple of meters and needed repairing. I asked the crew to take the line down to fix it. They were thorough and I could see they took pride in making sure the BSL were to specifications. However, as they worked on the BSL, the factory started processing more fish and all of a sudden offal discards started churning out of the factory into the water.
Birds were flying around becoming interested, and I kept looking back to see if the BSL was ready. I conducted the observations, tense and on-edge. And then - just like that - a Yellow-nosed Albatross flew spread winged into the warp cables. It was terrible. I couldn’t do a thing, and the poor bird spun around the cable and was dragged underwater by the downward force of the cables. It happened in a flash.
“No, no, no, no”, that’s all I could say. In desperation I asked to guys to hurry to place the BSL back on immediately, and they came rushing to do as I asked. Within a second of the BSL being deployed, the birds dispersed from the danger zone, and not a single interaction was recorded for the rest of the trawl. This was another sobering testimony of how efficiently these lines work.
I told the skipper what happened. He was upset that his vessel had a mortality, as these are rare occasions now. He said in the future he will deploy the spare BSL during maintenance, and we both learned from this experience.
Since the cooperation of the Deep-Sea Trawl companies and BirdLife South Africa, seabird mortality has decreased by 90% overall, and 99% for albatrosses alone. That is a staggering figure, one that was recently made public in one of the greatest conservation success stories South African seabirds has ever experienced.
Below: Bird scaring lines have reduced albatross bycatch by 99% in South Africa. Photo by Chrissie Madden