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.
  • 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

  • A floating holiday

    When I began working with the ATF, I always wondered what it would be like to be at sea during an important holiday – like Christmas or New Year. The idea of being away from home, working over such occasions did not fill me with enthusiasm. In the first five years working with the ATF my sea trips never coincided with national holidays… but there is always a first time. This year I was due to embark around the Christmas period but due to some considerable delays with engine issues meant that my first New Year at sea finally arrived. I chose to look at the positive side of things, and concentrate on learning more about the people who share the oceans with the albatross we are working to protect. So on Christmas day last year, I found myself travelling from home to the southern port of Ushuaia where I joined one of the large industrial trawl vessels. It turned out to be a vessel that I had been aboard previously, back in 2012; a trip which I completed just days before getting married. Between final arrangements and preparations, we didn’t get out of port until the 31st December at 18:30, a made good speed toward fishing grounds off the south of Argentina. My expectations were admittedly pretty low, as my friends and family gathered to bring in the New Year. However, the cook made a special effort to prepare a three course meal, which would have blessed the plate in any restaurant! The captain and crew shared stories of previous years spent on board vessels and another observer and I told our own tales of experiences at sea. By midnight, as the New Year arrived the 55 of us aboard the vessel all cheered and greeted one another as if we were old friends. It was agreeable to share the experience and it was certainly above any expectations I had of spending a holiday far out at sea.