13 Sep 2018

7 amazing things the Albatross Task Force has achieved in the past year

For more than a decade, the Albatross Task Force has been striving to make fishing industries seabird-safe. Working with communities, governments and on board boats, it has become one of BirdLife’s most successful programmes. Here’s what it has achieved in the past year alone.

Black-browed Albatross © Stephanie Winnard
Black-browed Albatross © Stephanie Winnard
By Jessica Law

Imagine sailing towards land after weeks at sea on board a fishing vessel, braving seasickness, perilous weather, and the all-pervasive smell of squid. Then imagine seeing the enormous, majestic silhouette of an albatross wheeling overhead, knowing that it is returning in safety to its chicks after a successful foraging trip.

For albatrosses, one of the world’s most threatened groups of seabirds, every life saved makes a huge difference. In modern times, the ‘kings of the ocean’ have been meeting tragic ends tangled in fishing gear or caught on baited hooks while diving for food – in fact, this accidental ‘bycatch’ is one of the main causes of their decline.

Fortunately, things are changing. In 2005, BirdLife and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) set up the Albatross Task Force (ATF) – an international team of bycatch prevention experts working alongside governments, communities and fishers on board their vessels to save seabird lives in some of the deadliest fisheries across the world. And they’re succeeding. From April 2017 – March 2018 alone, they have:


1. Pioneered new technology

Pelagic longline fishery, Brazil

Hookpods only release the hook at depths seabirds cannot reach

The ATF tested out 2000 Hookpods under working conditions within a Brazilian longline fishery. These small, re-usable devices have a pressure-release mechanism that only liberates the hook at a depth of over 10 metres – out of reach of albatrosses. Between May – October 2017, with over 38,000 hooks observed being laid, there were only four seabird fatalities. Fishers gave the Hookpods very positive feedback, reporting that they had no adverse effect on fishing operations. The Hookpods were given to the test boats to keep, along with re-usable LED lights to replace the disposable plastic glow sticks that fishers previously used to lure fish. As a result of this success, further experiments are being planned, with a view to rolling the devices out across the whole fleet.


2. Been nominated for a major conservation award

Purse seine fishery, Chile

Purse seine fisheries in Chile are not only saving seabird lives, but also money

In Chile, the ATF developed and trialled a new kind of net that not only reduces bycatch by 98%, but also save fishers $3,000 per vessel, as these nets are much cheaper to produce, using 800kg less mesh. The project’s success got it nominated for the Latin American Green Awards 2018. Another great success was promoting the nets to major investors such as the Confederation of Artisanal Fishers of Chile, in order to bring about lasting change in the industry.


3. Trained law enforement agencies

Pelagic longline fishery, Brazil

Black-browed Albatross © Fabiano Peppes

Bird-scaring lines have been mandatory on longline fishing vessels since 2014 – as have other seabird-safe measures such as weighing down fishing lines and setting them at night. However, with no government agency in place to oversee fisheries, enforcing these rules has been difficult. So in 2017, the ATF trained port inspectors in bycatch prevention, working alongside the Marine Special Unit of Federal Police to ensure that local authorities knew what to look out for. The government has also agreed to step up the number of port inspections, to ensure theory is being put into practice.


4. Achieved zero mortality rate across 84 trawls

Demersal trawl fishery, Namibia

Bird-scaring lines helped one Namibian fishery to achieve zero albatross deaths in a year

Before the Albatross Task Force came along, the number of albatross deaths in Namibian fisheries was estimated at a shocking 30,000 birds a year. Now, some fleets are becoming bycatch-free. One trawl fishery was observed from April 2017 – March 2018. Across 84 trawls, bird-scaring lines were used in 90% of cases, and no albatross deaths whatsoever were recorded. The ATF is now working on calculating new bycatch estimates, which look set to show a major reduction in fatalities since regulations were introduced in 2015.


5. Educated the next generation of fishers

Industrial trawl fleet, Argentina

In some ports, a third of children have family members in the fishing industry

The ATF has been delivering an educational outreach programme in schools surrounding key ports, where a third of students have family members in the fishing industry. 1,334 students were taught about the importance of seabird-safe measures. Their fishing family members have been provided with bird-scaring lines and helped to adjust to the new bycatch-prevention laws that came into full force in May 2018.


6. Transformed one of the world's worst fisheries into a gold standard

Demersal trawl fishery, South Africa

Grey-headed Albatross © Stephanie Winnard

Formerly the fishery with the some of the highest bycatch in the world, one trawl fleet in South Africa has now achieved an astonishing 99% reduction in albatross bycatch. Over 101 trips on board vessels this year, ATF members recorded 100% compliance with regulations, and zero seabird mortalities. This serves as an inspirational standard to which other fisheries can aspire. The ATF’s next challenge is to transfer this success to other types of fishery in the country, such as longline vessels, who are adopting measures at a slower rate.


7. Continued to change laws, opinions and an entire industry

Juvenile grey-headed albatross © Stephanie Winnard

The ATF has a lot to be proud of. Do date, it has secured bycatch-prevention regulations in eight out of its ten target fisheries, and the number is set to rise to nine in the coming year. Since it has successfully changed policies across so many countries and fleets, the challenge is now making sure that the rules the ATF has fought so hard to establish are enforced. The ATF also intends to expand its work to entirely new fisheries, a plan which is already underway. These new directions will demand new skills and ways of working, but judging by its astonishing achievements so far, we’re confident the Albatross Task Force is equal to the task.


Read the full annual review here.