Europe and Central Asia
1 Oct 2015

Gran Sol may have 'plenty of fish in the sea', but its seabirds are declining

A fisher trying to free a live Great Shearwater from a long line in Gran Sol. The fishers agreed to turn off the lights on deck at night, which reduced bycatch 10 fold. Photo: Alvaro Barros/SEO
By Pep Arcos, Marguerite Tarzia and Oli Yates

Seabirds are among the most threatened groups of birds in the world. Seabird bycatch (the accidental killing of birds as they are caught during fishing) is regarded as one of the major threats for many seabird species, particularly petrels, albatrosses and shearwaters. Investigating the phenomenon and finding solutions is one of BirdLife International’s priorities.

Since the recognition of the problem in the late 1980s, research and conservation action have been focused on longline fishing fleets operating in the southern oceans, where many albatross species were experiencing sharp declines (BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force [ATF] was created to help deal with this).

However, there’s increasing evidence that the problem extends to other regions as well, including Europe, and involves several types of gear. The European Commission finally recognised the problem in 2012 with the publication of the EU Action Plan for reducing incidental catches of seabirds in fishing gears, and in 2014, BirdLife International created the Seabird Task Force (STF, with funding from Fondation Segré) to find ways to prevent bycatch, for now focused on two problem areas, namely the Baltic and Mediterranean seas.

It is considering working with fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean as the next step, and Gran Sol, a fishing ground located west of the UK in the Atlantic Ocean, is one place that urgently needs it.

In 2006-2007, an observer from SEO (BirdLife in Spain), Álvaro Barros, participated in three fishing trips to the region (lasting about two weeks each at different times of the year: October, February-March and August). SEO detected worrying seabird bycatch rates. Each trip saw 48 to 141 birds caught, most of them (83%) dead. The main species captured were the Great Shearwater (Ardenna gravis), the Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), the Black-legged Kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla) and the Northern Gannet (Morus bassanus).

The Gran Sol hosts a fishing fleet that includes about 50 demersal longline vessels (which fish along the sea floor). The majority of them are from Spain. This fleet targets hake, using the traditional piedra-bola system (a line with hooks hanging of it regularly, which hangs near the bottom with alternating weights and buoys).

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Extrapolated to the whole fleet, the SEO observations on bycatch might represent the death of several thousands of birds per year. However, previous trips carrying observers from the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) reported very few captures of birds, which leads to important questions. Were the bycatch rates of the three trips unusually high? Do bycatch rates differ substantially between areas within the whole region of Gran Sol and surrounding banks? Are there substantial differences between vessels?

To better understand the problem and try to find solutions, BirdLife has approached the Spanish fleet, seeking their collaboration. Recently, we visited the fishing port of Burela, in northeast Galicia, which hosts most of the Spanish vessels operating in Gran Sol. We visited a demersal longliner and discussed the details of the gear with the skippers, and arranged to organise a workshop with the fleet before the end of this year.

The final aim will be to collaborate with the fisheries to assess the problem and find effective solutions to minimise bycatch. 

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.