Europe and Central Asia
9 Mar 2016

Africa is leading the way on ending seabird bycatch

The Albatross Task Force has been working since 2006 to eliminate seabird bycatch. Photo: Ross Wanless/BLSA
By Bruna Campos and Marguerite Tarzia

The Southern Atlantic Ocean is home to amazing seabirds, including penguins. But one particular group of seabirds – the albatrosses – are gravely at risk as they spend most of their time at sea, have long life spans and face many risks that are driving them to extinction.

Albatrosses are highly prone to being caught accidentally by fishing gear (‘bycatch’), although in many fisheries there are easy-to-implement solutions to prevent or reduce birds being caught. BirdLife established the Albatross Task Force (ATF) specifically to solve this problem. Working with fishers, the Albatross Task Force have been collecting data since 2006, allowing us to understand that in Namibian waters alone, more than 30,000 seabirds are estimated to be killed every year due to longline (a fishing line with baited hooks attached at intervals) and trawl fishing (pulling a fishing net behind one or more boats).

But today, Namibia stands as one of the most progressive nations in tackling seabird bycatch. In November 2015, the Namibian government adopted a national legislation that ensures all longline fisheries will need to have specific solutions to mitigate bycatch. While the legislation is being rolled out, the ATF team has been helping the fishing fleet to take up mitigation measures voluntarily. The Namibian government has 100% fisheries observer coverage (seabird bycatch monitoring coverage on its fishing vessels), and plans to improve the kinds of data collected, including on the effectiveness of mitigation measures and compliance with regulations. The ATF will continue to support these processes, monitor progress and assess the effectiveness of the mitigation solutions being implemented.

In comparison, countries in Europe are not making as much progress, despite the fact that seabirds in Europe are also being caught in fishing gear. Around 200,000 seabirds end up as bycatch in EU waters annually. Surprisingly, the EU has never legislated to stop this. In 2012, it adopted a seabird plan of action – a major step forward since it meant the EU was no longer in denial that there was a problem and accepted that action, including legislative action, was needed.

In 2013, the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy included an objective for EU fisheries to be managed in order to minimise the impact of fisheries to the marine ecosystem (which includes seabirds), rather than just on fish stocks. In order to achieve this objective, this month the EU has made a breakthrough. For the first time, the European Commission proposed legislative action that will bind all EU fishers that are bycatching seabirds to apply technical solutions to mitigate seabird bycatch.

Africa has not just been leading in legislation, but also with concrete results in reducing seabird deaths, for example in the South African trawl fishery. In 2008 it was estimated that 18,000 birds were dying in this fishery each year. Thanks to the Albatross Task Force team's efforts and a cooperative fishery that is Marine Stewardship Council-certified, in April 2014 it was assessed that all seabird bycatch had been reduced by 90% and for albatrosses it was reaching 99% fewer mortalities annually.

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In Europe, the BirdLife partnership has established an identical structure to the Albatross Task Force. This is known as the Seabird Task Force, and has been made possible by Fondation Segre. Currently, it is recording baseline information (the initial data against which subsequent data will be compared) on bycatch onboard fishing vessels using gillnets (vertical panels of nets set in a straight line) and demersal longlines (longlines along the sea floor) in Lithuania, Spain, Portugal and Poland. The team is also testing mitigation gears and recording the difference in birds caught with mitigation gear and those without.

We hope that EU countries will also establish further data collection and monitoring programmes to improve data on bycatch in a standardised manner, and expand mitigation gears to their whole fleets.

And so in 2016, 10 years after the ATF was created, the EU has an opportunity to learn from their African counterparts and make a difference for seabirds.

Stichting BirdLife Europe gratefully acknowledges financial support from the European Commission. All content and opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of Stichting BirdLife Europe. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.