7 Oct 2016

New strides in data collection between seabirds and fishing activities off the coast of West Africa

Participants during the training session @Dossa
Participants during the training session @Dossa
By Justine Dossa and Miguel Lecoq

West African waters are of exceptional importance to seabirds. Huge numbers congregate here to take advantage of the abundant prey provided by the upwelling currents. Seasonally, local seabirds find here the food they need to breed successfully. Nevertheless, the region is also vital during migration or during the winter for many distant migrant seabirds that came from the Arctic and Western Europe or from the sub-Antarctic waters to exploit the abundant food resources these waters provide.

BirdLife International is currently working in West Africa through the Alcyon Project in order to understand the importance that West African waters have for seabirds in improving their conservation. The aim is to identify marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) that can complement the network of areas previously identified.

The project is also assessing interactions between seabirds, artisanal and industrial fisheries. Observing seabird behaviour when vessels are present and data recording require dedicated training, as it needs seabird ID and data collection skills. Training observers on how to collect the data is then a first step in order to have an understanding of likely interaction rates between fisheries and seabirds.

Since BirdLife’s Alcyon Project began, the Senegalese partners (ship owners, Fishing Surveillance Department, Fisheries Department; Oceanographic Research Centre – CRODT, etc.) have been keen to collaborate with BirdLife to gather information on seabird interactions with fishery activities off the coast of West Africa.

At the end of August 2016, the Alcyon Project’s team, together with Dr. Yann Tremblay (IRD, France) provided a training workshop to 20 scientists and fisheries observers from the above-mentioned organisations, targeting seabirds using the West African waters. The sessions focused on seabird ecology, detection and identification, and methods for colleting data on seabirds at sea.

Dr. Massal Fall (Director of CRODT), during the opening ceremony commented that “This training is important in more than one way, in particular as the birds interact  with fishing activities, both artisanal and industrial. For example, who has never seen the clouds of seabirds chasing commercial fishing fleets? Moreover, are these same clouds not usually a reliable indicator of the presence of surrounding pelagic fish shoals most often? Throughout this course, our observers will be initiated  on data collection of seabirds at sea, on board of industrial fishing boats. I remain very optimistic about the outcomes of the training as seabirds, although part of the marine ecosystem, have rarely been the subject of training modules in West Africa, particularly in Senegal“.

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Practice on seabirds identification during the training session @Dossa

The workshop was a success and the first of this kind in Senegal. The Deputy Director of the Senegalese Fishery Surveillance Department, during the opening speech, also commented ”I really praise BirdLife International for this initiative because it is very rare to hear about trainings  related to marine birds, it is - I can say - the first time here. We hope that our observers attending this training fully benefit and will make restitution to their peers because we really want all of them to be dedicated".

Most of the observers had many years of experience as fishery observers with a good knowledge of fish and fishing vessels. On a regular basis they have been on board from a few weeks to some months monitoring fish catches. And now they are becoming seabird observers!

All of the trainees were highly satisfied with this first training and are looking forward to start working with BirdLife to dive into seabird data. Some of them explained briefly the value of this experience:

“I used to see birds at sea, but now with what I have learned from this training, I'll start watching and following them carefully.”

“Really, it's a great training, we've learned something we did not know.”

This is a great opportunity for Alcyon’s team to strengthen the collaboration with Senegalese partners and fishery observers, in order to start 'at-sea' data collection towards a better understanding of the interactions between seabirds and fisheries. We hope that the training sessions will continue on board in collaboration with data collection.