8 Jun 2016

High-seas heroes saving albatrosses from extinction: a decade of success

Shy Albatross © Albatross Task Force
Shy Albatross © Albatross Task Force
By Shaun Hurrell

In 2004, 19 of the world’s 22 albatross species were threatened with extinction, due largely to commercial fishing practices. An international team of expert instructors has since spent a decade working with fishermen refining techniques to prevent these magnificent seabirds from needlessly dying behind fishing boats and has had great success!

A snapshot of ten years of the ATF: the smell of squid, the sound of the roaring waves, spending weeks at sea,  building relationships with fishermen, being seasick, the agony of watching albatrosses drown on hooks knowing that there are chicks back on land waiting for them, the joy of watching such massive graceful birds soaring above the waves, seeking funding, teaching fishermen about birds, being laughed at, being respected, meeting in ports, meeting in board rooms, testing bird-scaring lines, testing them again, the pride in watching fishermen use the lines voluntarily, or ministers adopting them as law. It has been quite a ride.

But as Clemens Naomab, Albatross Task Force Instructor in Namibia, puts it:

“When you find out your work is going to save 30,000 birds a year in Namibia, it’s a wonderful experience.”

On World Oceans Day, the Albatross Task Force (ATF) is celebrating a decade of conservation success. The effort put in is paying off in saved seabirds.

Led by the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) for the BirdLife International Partnership, the ATF was launched to reduce the number of albatrosses and petrels accidently killed by fisheries in the Southern Ocean.

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The ATF has been highly successful in that time – almost eliminating bycatch in some fisheries – through the introduction of bird-scaring lines, a simple solution which prevents seabirds from interacting with fishing equipment.

Thanks to their work, 7 out of the 10 fisheries originally identified as seabird bycatch hotspots have now adopted regulations to protect seabirds during fishing.

Testing bird-scaring lines in Brazil © Albatross Task Force


The ATF continues to work with local governments to ensure all target fleets are complying with the recommended mitigation methods, and is a large part of BirdLife’s Marine Programme.

Measures include the use of bird-scaring lines, setting baited hooks under the cover of darkness and weighting hook lines to help them sink rapidly out of reach of foraging birds. 

“Albatrosses are magnificent seabirds and it’s a truly breath-taking experience to see them at sea", says Oliver Yates, ATF Programme Manager. "They are among the largest flying birds and have the largest wingspans of any bird in the world, reaching up to an incredible 3.5m.”

Albatrosses are one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world. Every year, an estimated 100,000 albatrosses are incidentally killed on longline fishing hooks and trawl cables. This fishery mortality is the main driver of albatross population declines, and 15 of the 22 species of albatross are still threatened with extinction today.

A new report shows that since its launch in 2006, the Albatross Task Force has been extremely successful. Albatross bycatch has been reduced by 99% in the South African hake trawl fishery and experimental trials demonstrate at least 85% reductions in seabird bycatch are possible in six other fisheries where regulations that require the use of bird-safe methods on their boats are now in place.

“BirdLife has proven this works with a decade of research, refining solutions and working with fishermen”,

said Patricia Zurita, Chief Executive of BirdLife International.

“Now it is time to expand this model worldwide so we can ensure no bird is needlessly caught by fisheries ever again in the future.”

Here you can watch the new ATF video:

The ATF works through BirdLife Partners and local NGOs in the Southern Hemisphere, and have spent over 5,000 days at sea to demonstrate how to keep seabirds off the hook. ATF recommendations are based on rigorous scientific testing, working side by side with the fishing industry.

Oliver Yates says:

 “The ATF have made some great achievements over the last ten years but we still need to ensure all vessels in all fleets are effectively implementing the mitigation measures recommended for the fishery, and that this becomes sustainable in the long-term.”

Large reductions in seabird bycatch have been achieved where governments have supported the adoption of regulations and the ATF has demonstrated that similar reductions of albatross deaths are possible in other target fisheries if these mitigation methods are put into practice. This requires improving levels of compliance through national fishery monitoring initiatives.

Clemens is positive for the future:

“Fishermen don’t want to catch seabirds, it is accidental. The simple changes we introduce on boats and in policy not only eliminate this bycatch, but are good for fishermen too. I don’t see another way that would work better than what we are doing now.”

Instructors briefly away from the sea © Albatross Task Force



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.