Stopping seabirds going under
Even among disheartening conservation statistics, those for seabirds don’t look good. With devastating deaths and fishing bycatch indicated as a critical problem, 80% of marine bird species are in decline. BirdLife’s Global Seabird Programme is working to curb the destructive effect of this interaction with fisheries, and – with a generous grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation – are supporting a series of satellite-tracking projects.
Within seabirds, albatrosses and petrels are particularly at risk. They are slow-maturing and breed infrequently, raising only a single chick. “The loss of a few birds can have serious implications”, said Dr Ben Sullivan – BirdLife’s Global Seabird Programme Coordinator.
The main cause of these birds’ demise is longline fishing. Boats cast fishing lines behind them - some over 100 km long with thousands of baited hooks. Birds swarm to the baits, get hooked and are subsequently drowned. “We estimated more than 100,000 albatrosses die each year”, warned Dr Sullivan.
“The loss of a few birds can have serious implications” —Dr Ben Sullivan, BirdLife’s Global Seabird Programme Coordinator
Knowing how the longline fisheries and seabird populations overlap is an important step in minimising this threat. “Tracking data are so important”, said Helen Booker, Senior Policy Officer with BirdLife’s Global Seabird Programme. “With it we can really demonstrate to the Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) exactly where the problems are and where mitigation measures urgently need to be put in place”.
Completing more of the knowledge of albatrosses’ and petrels’ movements is what it’s hoped these new projects will achieve. For example, On Marion Island (South Africa) scientists from the British Antarctic Survey - in conjunction with the Percy FitzPatrick Institute and Marine and Coastal Management (South Africa) - are currently fitting Grey Petrel Procellaria cinerea with satellite tags. "The results of this tracking study will help to collect the first at-sea distribution data for this Near Threatened seabird", added Helen Booker.
In total, three albatross and five petrel species in the southern Indian and Atlantic Oceans will be tracked over the next two years. The species include Spectacled Petrel Procellaria conspicillata (Vulnerable), Sooty Albatross Phoebetria fusca and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche carteri (both Endangered).
The birds will be tracked using satellite transmitters. These are attached to their backs using salt water–resistant cloth tape and send a signal, at intervals, to passing satellites. The satellites then work out the position of the transmitter and relay it to a ground station.
“Tracking data are so important” —Helen Booker, Senior Policy Officer with BirdLife’s Global Seabird Programme
“Having gained a greater understanding of where the birds are most at risk, simple and cheap strategies - such as bird scaring devices on bait lines and setting lines when birds are least likely to be feeding - can greatly help to reduce bycatch”, noted Dr Sullivan.
The first birds - Grey Petrel Procellaria cinerea (Near Threatened) - are currently being tagged on Marion Island, part of South Africa's Cape of Good Hope Province in the southern Indian Ocean. “Determining the at-sea distribution of seabirds like Grey Petrel through tracking studies and the interaction with longline fisheries is crucial for their conservation”, added Dr Sullivan.
Teams of scientists are now gearing up for seabird tracking studies over the next two years, and are benefiting seabird conservation by reporting their findings to BirdLife’s Global Seabird Programme. “We thank and wish good luck to all the scientists who are undertaking tracking work and providing us with data to help conserve the world’s seabirds”, concluded Helen Booker.
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Credits: Harriet Vickers