6 Jun 2016

Training scientists to save seabirds

Alton will now work in Chinese Taiwan to save seabirds from accidental death. © Ross Wanless
Alton will now work in Chinese Taiwan to save seabirds from accidental death. © Ross Wanless
By Berry Mulligan

Meet Alton.

Alton Liao is tall, calm of character, and with a measured approach to work. He knows his fish and he knows his boats. He’s spent many days at sea as an observer, monitoring fishing catches. And now he has become a seabird identification expert too. Alton has recently been to New Zealand where he undertook training organised by BirdLife International’s Marine Programme, and has taken his new skills back to Chinese Taiwan where he himself is a trainer.

Alton honing seabird identification skills at sea in New Zealand. © Karen Baird, Forest & Bird


Alton works on behalf of the Taiwanese Fisheries Agency, where he trains ‘fisheries observers’ – independent specialists who go out on fishing boats to monitor and record things like catch composition, accidental bycatch, safety issues and implementation of quotas and regulations.

When it comes to understanding the impact of the regulations protecting seabirds, some countries’ observer programmes need a bit of a helpful boost to record seabird bycatch. Reliable data from proactive and trained scientists and fisheries observers is key - this is why BirdLife's Marine Programme focuses on strengthening the capacity of researchers and fisheries officials.

Alton says:

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“Taiwanese long-liners fish in three oceans and we catch a lot from nature so it’s our duty to improve our skills in conservation – identification and good data is the basis for better conservation.”

Alton is the first Taiwanese trainer of observers to gain specialist seabird identification expertise. Skills development included necropsy training – how to determine sex, breeding state as well as confirmation of species ID and at-sea observation of live birds off New Zealand’s coast. He was trained by Forest & Bird (BirdLife in New Zealand).

Hundreds of thousands of birds are accidentally killed each year by longline, trawl and gillnets fisheries, and to understand the impact of this incidental loss of life it is necessary for national fisheries observers and scientists to have the skills to identify birds both dead on the decks of vessels as well as alive on the wing or the waters’ surface.

BirdLife have worked hard alongside many national governments over the past 10 years to support improved seabird regulations in the 5 major tuna commissions. These Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs) now require longline vessels to use seabird bycatch mitigation on board, but gathering data on the number of birds killed and the rate that they are killed across whole ocean basins remains a significant challenge, due to lack of reporting or submission of non-useable data to RFMOs.

Yukiko Inoue, Researcher at the National Research Institute of Far Seas Fisheries (NRIFSF) in Japan, took part in a similar training programme delivered through BirdLife in 2012. She explains the value of the experience:

“Seabirds accidentally captured in the southern hemisphere look similar to each other and there is a large number of species in the area, so training is important for researchers to avoid making mistakes of seabird identification. The training in New Zealand helped me a lot - I was able to enhance my identification skills which helped improve my knowledge and interpretation of observer data.’’

Yukiko and her colleagues at NRIFSF have recently reported on the effectiveness of RFMO seabird regulations in both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, using data collected by Japanese fisheries observers.

Alton Liao training with Dr. Claudia Mischler (Wildlife Management International) and Dr.Paul Scofield (Canterbury Museum). © Karen Baird, Forest & Bird


‘’It is great to see leadership from Japan on reporting observer data to RFMOs’’

said Dr Cleo Small, Head of BirdLife’s Marine Programme.

“There remains a long way to go in terms of reporting seabird bycatch. We continue to work with national scientists and the tuna commissions themselves to improve the quality and consistency of monitoring to ensure that regulations to protect seabirds are effective on a global scale.’’

Ultimately it is up to national observer programmes and scientists to collect and report their bycatch data to understand what works best when saving seabirds from unintentional capture. Counting birds at sea – both dead and alive - can help save these global ocean wanderers.

Now back in Chinese Taiwan, Alton is developing an adapted Taiwanese seabird identification guide for use by observers.

“I feel thankful for BirdLife for the opportunity” he says. “It’s a good chance for me and for the Fisheries Agency and their observers to have better information about ecology and conservation of marine life. “

Thanks to the David & Lucile Packard Foundation for their ongoing support to our work with High Seas fishing fleets.