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Americas
21 Feb 2017

Estimates are in: 25,000 seabirds die in southern cone fisheries every year

Unsettling new seabird bycatch data from Chile and Argentina urges BirdLife's Albatross Task Force and fisheries observers to act immediately to get new rules enforced

Struck by trawl cables at sea. Black-browed Albatross on Bird Island, South Georgia (Georgias del Sur) © Stephanie Winnard
Struck by trawl cables at sea. Black-browed Albatross on Bird Island, South Georgia (Georgias del Sur) © Stephanie Winnard
By Shaun Hurrell

The turbulent waters around the southern part of South America are some of the most productive in the world, with upwellings of nutrients that support a whole suite of species.

Along the Patagonian Shelf to the east, around the southern tip of the continent at Cape Horn and up into the Humboldt Current to the west, huge-winged albatrosses crest waves and soar on ocean winds thousands of kilometres to find food, majestic kings of the ocean that do well in such a rich ecosystem. That is until, however, their paths cross with fishing boats, which happens all too often. Here, in the waters of the “Southern Cone” (southern South America), Chilean and Argentinian trawl fisheries target different species of hake, but are inadvertently drowning large numbers of seabirds, with albatrosses hit the worst.

Behind a trawler, seabirds are struck by cables or can get caught in nets. These wretched moments have been recorded in Argentinian and Chilean seas by the BirdLife Albatross Task Force (ATF) instructors for the last 9 years, and they have been testing and finding ways to solve the issue – seabird bycatch mitigation measures – that can reduce deaths to negligible levels.

In the last couple of years, fisheries observer agencies have started recording seabird mortality as part of their daily duties in the southern cone region. In both Argentina and Chile, national fishery research institutes (INIDEP in Argentina; IFOP in Chile) employ fishery observers to monitor fish catch and operations, and the seabird data are being reported to the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) – an international mechanism aimed at understanding and preventing the cumulative impact of multiple fisheries on endangered seabird populations.

New data from fisheries observers and BirdLife's Albatross Task Force have been combined in Chile and Argentina, and rough estimates are in.

“Up to 25,000 seabirds, mainly albatross, are killed in fisheries in the southern cone of South America each year” - Oli Yates, BirdLife Albatross Task Force Coordinator.

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The species affected are predominantly from the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and South Georgia (Georgias del Sur) and Chilean islands off the southern tip of South America. Even though it is a large area, this is certainly not a small number, especially for species like Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris, which have declined by 19% in just ten years on South Georgia (Georgias del Sur). Bycatch especially takes its toll on albatrosses, which only lay a maximum of one egg per season and take 7-10 years to reach sexual maturity.

Wanting to act quickly, BirdLife has for the first time brought these observer agencies together in one room to commit to ending this accidental slaughter.

“We want early buy-in to get new regulations enforced", said Oli.

"We’ve learnt loads from our work in Africa which can quite quickly be applied here.” Recent work in Namibia has seen regulations adopted to save up to 30,000 seabirds a year.

The workshop, held in Valdivia, Chile, was entitled Incidental Capture of Seabirds: Solutions in the Southern Cone and resulted in the “Valdivia Declaration”, which recognised the role observer agencies have to play in monitoring the compliance of new regulations to come.

Albatross Task Force, fisheries observers and other attendees of the workshop: “Incidental Capture of Seabirds: Solutions in the Southern Cone" © Albatross Task Force

ATF trials have shown that, incredibly, seabird bycatch can be reduced by more than 85% in the southern cone fisheries when mitigation measures are used. These include simple and cheap methods like using bird-scaring lines to prevent birds striking cables, which once known, make sense for fishermen too.

“One message from the workshop stood out”, said Oli. “Individual efforts often make a crucial difference in the fight to save endangered species, and this declaration indicates a joint dedication for seabird conservation efforts over the next two years.”

“The balance between threatened seabird populations recovering or declining further will rest with many of the people attending the workshop, marking a hugely important occasion and providing great hope for albatrosses.”



Attendees of the Valdivia workshop included the Albatross Task Force teams from Argentina and Chile, as well as both the national fishery observer agencies, (IFOP and INIDEP), BirdLife Partners in Chile (CODEFF) and the UK (RSPB), ACAP and SubPesca Chile. The Valdivia Declaration was signed on 13 January 2017.

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.