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.
In Namibia we are working to reduce seabird mortality in the longline and trawl fisheries. Together these two fisheries are responsible for the accidental mortality of around 30,000 seabirds per year, the majority of which are white-chinned petrels and yellow-nosed albatross. These alarming figures represent one of the most lethal fisheries in the world in terms of seabird bycatch. Despite this high level of mortality, there are currently no regulations in Namibia that make the use of seabird bycatch mitigation measures compulsory.
However, our work has shown that simple and easy to use solutions can reduce this mortality to negligible levels without affecting fish catch. The simple solutions include the use of bird scaring lines to prevent seabirds from accessing baited hooks, and steel line weighting to rapidly sink baited hooks away from the sea surface and out of reach of the foraging seabirds. When used together with night setting, this combination is extremely effective. Our results suggest seabird bycatch can be reduced by over 95% in the longline fishery. In the trawl fishery bird scaring lines alone are sufficient to practically eliminated seabird bycatch. In South Africa this has already been put into practice, with a fleet-wide reduction of 99% of albatross deaths since introduction of mitigation.
Below: a member of crew deploys a bird scaring line in the Namibian trawl fishery
The Albatross Task Force is working in partnership with Meme Itumbapo - a local group of disadvantaged women based in Walvis Bay, who did not have the chance to gain a formal education. Together we have set up a process to manufacture and supply locally built, high standard bird scaring lines for trawl and long-line vessels in Namibia. The project is funded by Namibia Port Authority (Namport) and is designed to set up a new source of employment for people who will really benefit from the additional income and use locally sourced materials, instead of flying in foreign alternatives.
In the first phase, we made sixteen (16) bird scaring lines for trawl vessels, which we presented to the Novanam Fishing Company, the first company to drive voluntary use of bird scaring lines in their fleet. In the second phase, we manufactured a further six (6) trawler bird scaring lines and twenty four (24) bird scaring lines for the longline fleet.
Below: Building bird scaring lines with Meme Itumbapo in Walvis Bay, Namibia
This work represents some of the first steps toward achieving the critical environmental objective of reducing seabird mortality in trawl and longline fisheries in Namibia. At the same time we are helping to develop an income generating opportunity for a local women's group. The next steps include meeting with the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources to discuss how we can continue to support the implementation of mitigation measures in Namibia, and hopefully move a step closer to the adoption of mitigation in fishery regulations.
Through the ATF we have conducted the experimental work with industry and demonstrated how to deploy and retrieve bird scaring lines safely and efficiently. This work under commercial conditions on Namibian fishing vessels, as well as providing on shore workshops for industry has provided a solid basis of trust and information sharing which we are now using to drive wider implementation.
Namibia is one of the priority fisheries for the ATF, and we hope to see big changes in the near future.
While we are at sea it is important for us understand more than just the interaction between seabirds and vessels.
To reach out and connect with the captains and crew we must learn to understand the life of these people with whom we share our time, and ultimately the people who will be responsible for the adoption of new practices in their daily routine that will help save the albatross. Some of the people we meet are truly incredible, and have amazing stories to share.
During my last trip, which was just over 40 days in the southern ocean, I had the opportunity to meet Claudia, the only female that had worked on the vessel in over 10 years. It is extremely uncommon to see women working at sea in Argentina, where folklore suggests that women at sea bring bad luck! Although this is gender discrimination, it is intriguing from a point of view of how social dynamics function on these vessels.
One day I approached Claudia to enquire about how she dealt with living in this environment. Claudia answered with the strong sense of self confidence that defines her character. She said that you just have to gain the respect of your colleagues, and that on the vessel nobody would dare disrespect her. I asked what she liked about her work and she explained that she works hard for a few weeks at sea which then gives her time to relax and do the things she enjoys at home.
Claudia told me that a lot of people think of these vessels as a prison because you can't just walk away once you are at sea, but nobody puts a gun to your head and forces you to work here - it is a choice. Claudia works in the processing plant, organising the fish trays for freezing and when she is not in the factory she wears her long dark hair down and her favourite earrings.
She enjoys watching the albatross from the deck and takes photos of the sunsets, something she says helps her to relax and feel inspired. I was able to help her pick out the differences between the species and when I left the vessel she said that now she realises that part of her inspiration is endangered with extinction.
Below: Claudia at her work post in the fish factory
Globally, an albatross dies on a fishing hook every 5 minutes. Hookpod is a clever new invention that catches fish, not birds. Designed by Devon-based brothers Ben and Pete Kibel and trialled extensively by the RSPB Albatross Task Force on behalf of BirdLife International, it’s small in size, big in innovation and has huge implications for saving the albatross from extinction.
What’s the problem?
By far the biggest threat faced by many albatross and other seabirds is death on tuna and swordfish longline fishing hooks. As the name suggests, this fishing technique involves very long lines of baited hooks - a single vessel may use a line extending 130 km, from which can hang as many as 10-20,000 baited hooks. Often a disposable chemical lightstick is attached above the hook to attract bait fish. These plastic, single-use lightsticks are often discarded into the sea.
Every year longliners set about three billion hooks, killing an estimated 300,000 seabirds every year, of which 100,000 are albatrosses. Tens of thousands of these are killed in the pelagic longlline industry for swordfish and tuna. 15 out of 22 species of albatrosses are threatened with extinction. Death in these longline fisheries is the greatest threat to the majority of species. When baited hooks are set from the stern of the vessel, before they sink they are still visible near the sea's surface. At this stage, foraging birds spot them and try to grab the bait before it sinks. They can become hooked, dragged under and drowned. This is obviously bad news for the birds, but also the fishermen, who would rather catch fish. With many of the world’s albatross colonies located in UK Overseas Territories, this loss of worldwide biodiversity is a major concern to the UK government.
How Hookpod Works
The Hookpod has been designed to reduce the number of birds killed in tuna and swordfish fisheries to near zero. It achieves this by enclosing the point and barb of the hook as it enters the water, making it impossible for birds to become hooked. The pod has an air pressure mechanism which opens on reaching fishing depth and the baited hook is released to begin fishing. In short it keeps birds off hooks, opens underwater, has a light in it and means fishermen can catch fish and not birds.
When the fishing is finished, Hookpods are simply pulled onboard, closed up again and stored along with the hooks and line in standard fishing bins ready to be used again. It’s very durable and long lasting, meaning there is reduced waste and increased efficiency.
Using the power of the Internet
Following successful trials in Brazil, South Africa and Australia, in many cases with the assistance of the Albatross Task Force, an RSPB team of seabird bycatch reduction instructors, the inventors are now seeking funds via the Kickstarter website to start commercial scale production. Hookpod is using the online crowd source funding platform to try and raise £100,000 to get Hookpods into production and start distribution around world fisheries. Money is being raised to buy machinery and component parts. You can see the project here https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hookpod/hookpod-saving-the-albatross-from-extinction
All money raised will directly help put Hookpods in the water where they can start saving albatross. The project will be online and available to donate to until August. Inventor Ben Kibel says ‘The Hookpod is the result of years of design and feedback from fisheries to end up with something that not only stops birds being killed, but can save fishermen time and money. We’re really excited that using Kickstarter could give us the chance to produce this here in the UK, while saving albatross all around the world’