Black browed albatross Thalassarche melanophrys, West Point Island, Falklands.

Seabird bycatch

The accidental killing of seabirds as so-called 'bycatch' in fisheries is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of seabirds globally every year.

The unsustainable bycatch of albatrosses

Of primary concern has been the unsustainable bycatch of albatrosses in longline fisheries around the world, which is threatening many species with extinction.

Indeed, albatrosses are now the most threatened group of seabirds in the world.

After the moratorium on high seas drift netting in the 1980s, longline fishing became an increasingly popular method of fishing. Longlines may be 'set' on the seabed (demersal) for the likes of cod, ling or Patagonian toothfish, or in the water column (pelagic) for tuna and swordfish. 

Pelagic vessels deploy lines up to 80 miles (130 km) long, each carrying thousands of baited hooks attached to branchlines. Globally, more than one billion hooks are set each year by the world's longline fleets. Seabirds grab the bait, get hooked, are dragged underwater and drown.

BirdLife International estimates that:

  • At least 300,000 seabirds drown on longline hooks every year
  • This toll includes tens of thousands of albatrosses.

A key characteristic of many seabird species is that they are highly mobile, often travelling vast distances across the oceans, including the territorial waters of many nations and beyond into the high seas.

These birds may therefore encounter fisheries in various jurisdictions and this means that protection cannot be tackled effectively by national measures alone.

We therefore work within BirdLife International's Global Seabird Programme to reduce seabird bycatch, by requiring the routine onboard use of technical fixes and changes to fishing patterns (mitigating measures), to levels where fishing does not threaten the viability of the affected seabird populations.

An EU Seabird Plan of Action

While our initial focus was on the priority threat from longlines to albatrosses in waters distant from the UK, seabirds are also under threat much closer to home and from a range of fishing methods.

In Europe, among the worst known hotspots for longline bycatch are Norway, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic to the west of Ireland (see downloads). As a result, species such as the critically endangered Balearic shearwater, Yelkouan shearwater, Great shearwater and Cory's shearwater are killed at an often alarming rate.

There is also increasing evidence that significant numbers of seabirds are killed in trawl (colliding with the cables or 'warps') and gill-net fisheries. A 2009 journal review of data from the Baltic Sea and (mainly eastern) North Sea estimated that a minimum of 90,000 and more likely 100,000-200,000 birds drown every year in gill-nets, including divers and sea-duck, such as Steller's eider, which are protected under European law.

To combat these manifest threats to seabirds in European waters and also in external waters where EU vessels operate, we led BirdLife in calling on the European Commission, Member States and the European Parliament to adopt and implement a robust and ambitious EU Seabird Plan of Action to minimise seabird bycatch in fisheries.

The plan needs to follow the UN Food and Agriculture (FAO) Best Practice Technical Guidelines. BirdLife's demands for this EU plan are to ensure that:

  • it covers all relevant fisheries and gears 
  • takes emergency (fast-track) action for the most threatened species 
  • introduces minimum mitigation standards, especially in Natura 2000 sites and Important Bird Areas (IBAs) 
  • requires Member States to collect and report seabird bycatch data 
  • includes a programme for developing and testing mitigation measures 
  • includes awareness-raising and training programmes for fishers and observers 
  • facilitates collaboration between scientists, the industry and NGOs

BirdLife galvanised progress towards an EU Seabird Plan of Action by setting out the case for it in 2007, and by creating a 'shadow' plan in 2009.

How you can help

Black browed albatross chick at West Point Island

There are many different ways you can help save the albatross.