22 Sep 2016

World’s worst fishery for bycatch turns ‘seabird safe’

Almost 20,000 White-chinned Petrel are set to be saved thanks to new law passed by Namibian government © Stephanie Winnard
Almost 20,000 White-chinned Petrel are set to be saved thanks to new law passed by Namibian government © Stephanie Winnard
By Shaun Hurrell

New law passed in Namibia to protect 30,000 seabirds from death by trawling or longlining.

In 2013, fishermen on board two fishing fleets set out from Walvis Bay in Namibia, hauling out nets and lines as per usual. Unbeknownst to them, they would return into port for the final time that year with a death toll totalling around 30,000 seabirds accidentally killed.

“It’s really sad to see a drowned bird, especially the big ones, because you know their long life cycle, that they have chicks waiting for them on nests,” remembers Clemens Naomab, BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force Coordinator in Namibia. “And that it can be avoided by simple measures.”

Since we reported Namibia as home to the world’s worst fisheries for seabird bycatch, our Albatross Task Force (ATF) has been working hard with fishermen out at sea, onshore through workshops and with government officials to turn this around. Completely.

“It got a lot of attention of the ‘people upstairs’, if I can say it that way,” says Clemens. “The regulations have now been implemented so we’re hoping to reduce the bycatch by at least 85-90%”.

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It is now obligatory for the two fleets to use simple solutions that will effectively end seabird bycatch in Namibia: bird-scaring lines for the 70 trawl fishing vessels; and bird-scaring lines, plus line-weighting and night-setting techniques for the 12 longliners. This will make a huge difference to White-chinned Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis (listed by BirdLife as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List), which are mostly caught by longline hooks, and albatross such as Black-browed Thalassarche melanophris (Near Threatened) and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Thalassarche chlororhynchos (Endangered) getting caught in trawl cables.

A new hope for Naimibia's seabirds © John Paterson

A new hope for Namibia's seabirds © John Paterson

Fifteen out of 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, but it’s hard to explain this to a fisherman when he sees 500 birds surrounding his vessel every day – having learnt to wander thousands of kilometres to fishing boats for an ‘easy meal’. Spending up to 12 days at a time at sea, Clemens and other ATF instructors build a relationship with the crew: “I explain to them the situation. They are amazed the albatrosses live for 60 years. I haven’t had a bad experience, they want to save the birds when they understand.” The Namibian Hake Association were clearly moved as they voluntarily adopted the measures last year.

Now after a lobbying effort from BirdLife and local ATF partner Namibia Nature Foundation, the Minister of Fisheries and the Chief Fisheries Scientists have driven forward the regulations fully – meaning a legal requirement to ensure Namibia’s fishing fleet is ‘seabird safe’. Non-compliance now carries stiff penalties: NAD$ 500,000 (£27,900) and up to 10 years imprisonment. But with the ATF and an ‘observer’ network out on vessels to show how easy and cheap the measures are, and that they don’t interfere with daily fishing practices, there should hopefully be no need for a prosecution.

“We are working with a fisheries observer agency to ensure the monitoring of compliance on board, and we hope to report on fleet-wide seabird bycatch reductions soon,” says Oli Yates, Global Coordinator, Albatross Task Force.

Good for birds, good for women

The ATF also works with a women’s cooperative, who provide locally-made bird-scaring lines to even the most reluctant fishing fleets, whilst providing these women with an income as well. “They’re a group of elderly ladies working close to the port in a centre called ‘Bird’s Paradise’, and they’ve built hundreds of bird-scaring lines already”, explains Clemens. “I invite them to our workshops so they can see how their lines are helping birds. They feel good about it, and do a great job.”

Despite suffering from seasickness (which initially caused much amusement to the fishermen), Clemens believes the time spent at sea building their respect is worth it. “If someone tells you you’re saving 30,000 birds, you feel “Wow!” – quite an achievement.”

Clemens Naomab, ATF Coordinator for Namibia © Shaun Hurrell

Clemens Naomab, ATF Coordinator for Namibia © Shaun Hurrell

“I would like to congratulate the Namibian government and the Chief of Fisheries for taking this issue so seriously,” he remarks. “Now when I go out on a long line vessel where they’ve taken up the measures, I actually have no dead birds to record.”

The ATF model is proving very successful across the world, having reduced albatross bycatch in South Africa by 99%. As the ATF celebrates its 10th Anniversary this year, with 5,000 days spent at sea so far, it pledges to reduce seabird bycatch in all priority fisheries by 80% by 2020.

Thanks to the David & Lucile Packard Foundation and the Adessium Foundation for their support for this work.

The Albatross Task Force (ATF) is an initiative led by the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) for BirdLife the International Partnership. The ATF is involved in work in 8 countries including Argentina (hosted by Aves Argentinas), Brazil (Projecto Albatroz), Chile (CODEFF), Ecuador until 2013 (Aves y Conservación), Namibia (Namibia Nature Foundation), Peru (ProDelphinus), South Africa (BirdLife South Africa), and Uruguay (Projecto Albatros y Petreles de Uruguay).