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.
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
Since 2013 Birdlife partners in Ecuador, Peru and Chile have been monitoring small-scale gillnet fleets for evidence of interactions (termed “bycatch”) with pink-footed shearwaters and other seabird species. In Peru there are tens of thousands of small-scale fishermen operating from over 10,000 vessels along the coast. The most common fishing gear they use is gillnets, often set drifting overnight at the ocean surface. The bycatch of any one vessel may be few and the work of monitoring can continue year upon year - observing, counting, and estimating the number of animals caught - to better understand the true impacts on these seabird populations.
The pink-footed shearwater is a vulnerable species that nests exclusively on a few small islands off the coast of Chile and migrates northward annually to foraging grounds off the north Pacific coasts of the United States and Canada. In the course of that migration these birds cross many fishing grounds that put them at risk of being caught and dying, including the massive gillnet fleet operating in Peru.
Below: A Pink-footed shearwater, one of four found entangled and drowned in gillnets off the coast of Peru. Image courtesy of Pro Delphinus
In June of 2014 one of our onboard observers accompanied a gillnet vessel out of the port of Chorillos, in the capital of Lima. Over the course of two fishing trips, each about 100 km offshore, four pink-footed shearwaters became entangled and drowned in the nets. These same trips also had bycatch including white-chinned petrels, sooty shearwaters, and a Markham’ s and ringed storm petrel. This was the first direct evidence of bycatch of pink-footed shearwaters by this study in Peru. We will continue our work monitoring this fishery, hoping no more birds get entangled or drown, but also looking for the long-term solutions for when they do.
Below: A map indicates the positions of observed net deployments and seabird bycatch. Image courtesy of Pro Delphinus