Africa
2 Mar 2017

Disentangling the cause of seabird deaths in South Africa

Net entanglements have become a major problem for seabirds in South African side trawl vessels

Cape Gannet © AGAMI/Marten van Dijl
Cape Gannet © AGAMI/Marten van Dijl
By Reason Nyengera

Despite huge success in reducing the incidental catch of seabirds in fishing nets, there’s been reports that an old type of vessel used in South Africa is still posing serious threats to seabirds.

The Albatross Task Force (ATF) has been highly successful in achieving a remarkable reduction in the incidental catch of seabirds in the South African hake trawl fishing industry through the introduction of bird-scaring lines; a simple and affordable solution. These lines act as visual deterrents to prevent cable strikes.

Despite these overwhelming achievements, there is a vessel class of side trawlers which is still posing a serious threat to seabirds. The side trawlers are some of the oldest vessels in South Africa’s demersal trawl fishery. These vessels haul catch over the side, rather than over the stern. The nets are also deployed over the side with the trawl warps passing through two blocks suspended at the stern. Hence trawl dragging is actively done from the stern.

Net entanglement is a major problem when the net stays loose on the sea surface for longer periods, for example during hauling and setting. Diving birds, mainly Cape Gannets can become trapped in the mesh of the net. Side trawlers are of special concern many because of the hauling process where loose net floats for a longer period compared to that of stern trawlers.

Evidence of this interaction by South African vessel, was captured on camera by our former Albatross Task Force leader Barry Watkins on one of his trips however we do yet have a clear idea of the magnitude of the issue in South Africa. 

Cape Gannets trapped in the net during hauling on a South African side trawl vessel © Barry Watkins.

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Currently there are no particularly successful mitigation measures to reduce the risk of seabirds becoming entangled in these nets. The current best practice advice suggested by ACAP (Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels) is aimed at reducing the attractiveness of the net to seabirds and limiting the time the net remains of the water surface.

Eliminating discards during hauling and setting would reduce the number of attending birds and hence the risk of them being caught. However it is inevitable that birds will be attracted to a net full of fish, so encouraging fishermen to shorten setting and hauling times, as well as making sure that the nets are cleaned before setting is a further deterrent.

The ATF is also working with local governments and other stakeholders to ensure all target fleets are complying with the recommended mitigation methods. Furthermore each vessel class fleet now has tailored bird mitigation plans in place through the ongoing Bird Mitigation Plan (BMP) assessments.

These plans introduce a standard set of procedures to reduce seabird interactions, but still allow vessel operators to refine and adapt according to their vessel’s particular capabilities as well as allowing continued improvements through ongoing observations, information gathering and review processes.

Water cannons have been tested in Argentina, where high pressurised water has been used to scare away seabirds from the nets with varied success. Unfortunately, there is no definite conclusion about the effectiveness of this method.

Despite the difficulty in finding a successful mitigation measure, we continue to work on solutions across the globe, through the collection of reliable data to determine the incidental catch of seabirds in these kinds of vessels.


The Albatross Task Force is an initiative led by the RSPB for the BirdLife International Partnership and is a major part of the BirdLife International Global Marine Programme. The initiative involves work on the ground in eight countries including Argentina (hosted by Aves Argentinas), Brazil (Projeto Albatroz), Chile (CODEFF), Ecuador until 2013 (Aves y Conservación), Namibia (Namibia Nature Foundation), Peru (ProDelphinus), South Africa (BirdLife South Africa) and Uruguay (Proyecto Albatros y Petreles de Uruguay).

ATF report: The ATF Annual Report reflects on the advances in the ten target fisheries over the last ten years and the future challenges the ATF faces. A link to the report can be found here.

Saving Albatrosses – how to reduce seabird bycatch (technical video for fisheries produced by the Albatross Task Force): here

None of the advances the ATF has made would be possible without the generous support of the RSPB membership and private sponsors and donors, as well as from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Tilia Fund, The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Páramo Directional Clothing.