25 Jun 2019

Sustainable tuna? There’s a catch

A Wandering albatross, one of the birds most threatened by bycatch. © Derren Fox
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Every year hundreds of thousands of seabirds die as bycatch in fishing gear. BirdLife is joining a call to reduce this number by enforcing mitigation measures through observer coverage. You can join the campaign by signing the petition here.


Unless you work in conservation, ‘bycatch’ is probably not a word you hear very often. In fact, it may be something you’ve never heard of before. And yet bycatch — when animals get  unintentionally caught and killed in fishing gear — is one of the biggest threats to seabirds in the world.

Collectively, seabirds are one of the most threatened group of birds on the earth. Nearly one third of all species are Globally Threatened with extinction, and nearly half are experiencing population declines. Bycatch is a big part of these statistics.

Fortunately, there are some very effective measures that mitigate the problem of bycatch. Setting fishing lines at night is one way to ensure that birds like albatrosses and petrels, which feed during the day, don’t get caught on hooks and drowned. Another is to attach bird scaring or ‘Tori’ lines with bright streamers to vessels to frighten birds away. Fishers can also attach weights to lines so that they sink quickly, so birds can’t reach the bait.

When used, these methods can result in over a 90% reduction in bycatch. The problem, though, is that these mitigation methods are not always used. A recent study using satellites and algorithms to measure whether boats were setting lines at night found that less than 15% did. The statistic highlighted a persistent problem with mitigation methods: they are only effective when actually put in place. All too frequently, these methods aren’t being utilized.

That’s why BirdLife International is joining with other leading environmental NGOs to call for 100% independent observer coverage of tuna fisheries. If Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) require 100% observer coverage — either human and/or electronic — on industrial tuna vessels problems like illegal fishing, misreported or unreported catch, and bycatch of threatened species like albatrosses will all substantially decrease. You can read the full Statement of Support for 100% observer coverage here and sign the petition to support the campaign here.