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UN sets standard for reducing seabird bycatch

Last modified: 03 March 2009

Tristan albatross with longline fishing hook in neck, Gough Island

Longline fisheries poses a serious threat to albatrosses, including the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross.

Image: Richard Cuthbert

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has agreed a ground-breaking set of best practice guidelines to reduce accidental deaths of seabirds, including the world’s 18 species of threatened albatross, in fisheries.

The new guidelines were presented at the 28th session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries (COFI) in Rome, where 100 FAO member countries are meeting to address pressing global fisheries issues.

Reducing the slaughter

The guidelines raise the bar for the FAO’s International Plan of Action by which member countries are encouraged to develop national measures to reduce the slaughter of seabirds in fishing gear.

Up till now, the FAO’s seabird action plan has only addressed longline fisheries, in which seabirds get caught and drowned while trying to snatch bait from hooks on lines targeting tuna, swordfish, toothfish and other high value stocks. 

"With 18 out of 22 albatross species threatened with extinction, and countless other seabird species snared annually in a cat’s cradle of longlines, trawls and gill-nets, the FAO is to be congratulated on this major step forward"

The new guidelines extend the scope to address what countries can and should do to also reduce bycatch of seabirds in trawling gear and gill-nets.  The scope is also extended from fishing nations to the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) which govern fisheries on the high seas. New standards are set for research and data collection, education, and observer programmes.

Welcoming the new guidelines, Dr Ben Sullivan, Coordinator of BirdLife International’s Global Seabird Programme said:  “ These Best Practice Technical Guidelines set the gold standard for how fishing nations around the world should take simple, practical steps to halt the appalling loss of seabirds in fishing gear. 

“With 18 out of 22 albatross species threatened with extinction, and countless other seabird species snared annually in a cat’s cradle of longlines, trawls and gill-nets, the FAO is to be congratulated on this major step forward.

“It is now vital that this does not remain a paper exercise to gather dust on shelves, but gets published without delay in the FAO’s Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries so that the guidelines get sharp operational teeth.  With the aid of this powerful new tool, countries which already have plans can improve them, and those which are developing plans or have yet to do so have a robust model to build on.”

Impact

The new guidelines have special relevance for the EU which is committed to produce in 2009 a Community Plan of Action for reducing seabird bycatch in domestic waters and wherever EC-flagged vessels operate overseas.  This will therefore be the first FAO seabird action plan to address all the different kinds of fishing gears that impact adversely on seabirds.

Dr Sullivan said: “The Community Plan of Action cannot come soon enough for beleaguered seabird populations at home and abroad.  We look forward to a European seabird plan later this year, moulded by this new best practice, which is fit-for-purpose, enforceable, and global in its outreach and influence.”

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