Bycatch is a conservation success story ‘waiting to happen’
Thousands of threatened seabirds are drowning each year off UK coastlines.
Born for ocean skies
These birds are built for ocean living. They are born on sea cliffs, and many have wings specially adapted to harness updrafts created by waves to glide over the deep.
Seabirds evolved to spend their days soaring through ocean skies like fish evolved for swimming. Their lives should be filled with time teaching their young to take their first leap from cliff edges, cheekily cawing at sailors and freewheeling above waves. Seabirds are naturals at hunting fish – gannets have special air sacs under their skin in their face and chest to cushion their impact as they plunge dive from up to 30 metres into the water. But for thousands of UK seabirds, their lives are cut short in a desperate and doomed scramble to resurface for air, wings tangled in netting or beaks pierced by hooks.
"If you’ve heard of bycatch, you’re likely to think of it as something that is happening in faraway oceans. Not everyone realises this is a problem at home"
What is bycatch?
If you’ve heard of bycatch – birds accidentally killed or injured by fishing gear – you’re likely to think of it as something that is happening in faraway oceans to birds like albatrosses that most people never see in their lifetime. The RSPB has worked for over a decade to stop bycatch pushing albatrosses over the brink of extinction. Bycatch is the top marine threat that seabirds across the world face.
It’s happening here
Not everyone realises this is a problem at home. In 2020 the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs published the first gauge of bycatch mortality in UK waters. The research estimated between 2,200 and 9,100 northern fulmars and 1,800-3,300 guillemots along with hundreds of cormorants and gannets are unintentionally killed in fishing equipment each year. These figures may be the tip of the iceberg as less than 5% of the total fishing effort was observed for UK-flagged vessels.
Further studies in 2021 by Whale and Dolphin Conservation and the Humane Society International revealed bycatch kills around 1,000 harbour porpoises, 250 common dolphins, 475 seals, 35 minke and humpback whales in UK waters every year.
Most seabird bycatch happens with longlines (a single vessel targeting hake in UK waters can set over 10,000 hooks on lines over 20km long) in the north of Scotland and gillnets (walls of nylon netting) in south west England. Fishing gear turns seabirds’ survival skills into deadly disadvantages. Diving birds like guillemots, which can dive hundreds of feet for fish, don’t see nets as they hunt underwater and drown when nets tangle their bodies. Fulmars’ sharp hunting instincts are turned against them when they try to grab baits off hooks on longlines, get trapped and dragged underwater.
You may have heard young puffins are called pufflings but did you know guillemot chicks are called jumplings? Guillemots take a “push them in at the deep end” approach to parenting, encouraging their chicks to leap off stomach-churningly high cliffs into the sea just weeks after hatching. This is before they can even fly.
"At least ten species of seabirds are known to die as bycatch in UK waters, nine of which are included in the red or amber lists of Birds of Conservation Concern"
Guillemots have a stronghold on the UK’s stretches of sheer cliffs, forming some of our largest breeding colonies in the great ‘seabird cities’. When they aren’t cosied up in their massive colonies for breeding season, they are on solitary adventures over the seas. Guillemots won’t turn their nose up at a social if there’s a chance of a good meal involved though – they usually only flock together in a food rich area.
Fulmars mate for life and will return to the same nest site each year to raise a single chick together. This seabird is sometimes mistaken for a gull but they are actually related to albatrosses and can live for over 40 years. Although they are social birds, feeding in flocks out at sea, they could be described as “not great with new people”. Fulmars defend their nests from intruders by spitting out a foul-smelling oil. They are vulnerable in Europe (European red list). Around eight per cent of the total global population is in the UK and almost all of the UK’s fulmars are found in Scotland.
At least ten species of seabirds are known to die as bycatch in UK waters, nine of which are included in the red or amber lists of Birds of Conservation Concern:
- Fulmar (amber-listed)
- Guillemot (amber-listed)
- Gannet (amber-listed)
- Great-black backed gull (amber-listed)
- Great northern diver (amber-listed)
- Herring gull (red-listed)
- Kittiwake (red-listed)
- Razorbill (amber-listed)
- Shag (red-listed)
An unsustainable situation
Seabirds are already under so much pressure. They are among the species most vulnerable to climate change and pressures from unsustainable fishing, invasive non-native species and offshore development also pose a devastating threat to their future. Indirect effects of fisheries such as overfishing of seabird prey such as sandeels, can be just as deadly.
"Seabirds are among the species most vulnerable to climate change and pressures from unsustainable fishing, invasive non-native species and offshore development."
A ten year RSPB seabird tracking project showed some birds commute hundreds of kilometres during breeding season. Razorbills and guillemots nesting on Fair Isle regularly travel more than 300km in search of food for their young. Gannets fitted with satellite tags at Bempton Cliffs have core feeding area 50-150 km from the colony, overlapping with offshore wind farm zones.
How to stop seabirds being killed
So many issues driving the nature and climate emergency feel insurmountable. But bycatch can be stopped.
As our Bycatch Programme Manager, Rory Crawford, explains: "In a world where we can see that nature is struggling and solutions seem to be totally massive and intractable, tackling bycatch is something that works. We know there are ways to reduce fishing pressure on seabirds while keeping fishers fishing. It requires a leap of faith from all stakeholders and proper investment from those in charge, but it works. It's a conservation success story waiting to happen."
Bycatch has plummeted by over 95% in places like Namibia and South Africa, thanks to the Albatross Task Force. Simple and cheap measures are highly effective. For example bird-scaring lines (or tori lines) have colourful streamers to frighten away birds from baited hooks and harmful trawl cables.
"We know there are ways to reduce fishing pressure on seabirds while keeping fishers fishing. It's a conservation success story waiting to happen."
Fishing at night prevents deaths since most seabirds don’t hunt in the dark. And adding weights to longlines makes baited hooks sink faster. This means less time for seabirds to get caught.
New technology is also showing promising results such as the Birdlife International team's googly-eyes floating device, which we hope will put birds off from diving in areas with gillnets, which is being tested in Cornwall.
Other tools such as Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) with cameras can also improve understanding of bycatch.
A year ago the UK Government declared 2021 a ‘marine super year’ and promised to publish the long awaited Bycatch Mitigation Initiative, outlining what needs to be done to stop bycatch in UK waters. It still hasn’t been released. Animals are dying with every month the plan is delayed.
We lobby UK governments to ramp up monitoring and roll out measures to stop seabirds drowning on the end of hooks and in nets. From our grassroots engagement across the globe, we know how important it is to collaborate with industry: we have collaborated with fishers to understand the problem and find practical solutions. We have proven you can stop accidental seabird deaths in fishing gear.
Bycatch is a solvable problem. It’s time for our governments to solve it.