Europe and Central Asia
13 Dec 2016

Permission to come aboard Captain!

Captain of the Olimpico (c) SPEA
By Bruna Campos & Marguerite Tarzia

It’s that time of year again – a time to reflect back on the highs and lows of the year just passed and to look to the coming New Year with hopeful wishes and determined resolutions. In the spirit of this, Bruna Campos & Marguerite Tarzia – Policy Officer and Conservation Officer in the BirdLife ECA Marine team – wish seabirds a safe flight over the perilous oceans.

Time and time again, Nature shows us the way. The inventive and cooperative spirit needed to overcome one of the greatest challenges in BirdLife’s marine work – reducing seabird bycatch – is quite perfectly encapsulated by the many cross-species relationships that make life above and below the waves so beautiful to behold. One captivating example is the symbiotic relationship between a most unexpected pairing: the world’s heaviest known bony fish, the Sunfish (Mola mola) and seabirds, notably gulls. The disc-like Sunfish carry crustacean parasites called Penella (that bury their heads into the fish’s flesh), yet by floating in a line at the surface of the water and exposing their sides, they cunningly attract hungry gulls that helpfully extract the parasites – one species’ pest is another one’s lunch! Here at BirdLife, the Marine Team take its cue from Nature: our battle  to save seabirds is a collaborative effort fought on many fronts – out on the ocean blue and under the blue flag of the European institutions in Brussels.

Across Europe, it is estimated that around 200,000 seabirds are accidentally caught and killed by commercial fishing hooks and nets each year. A great number of Europe’s 82 seabird species are at risk of becoming ‘bycatch’ in one type of fishing gear or another, although some species appear to be more susceptible than others. Most worrying is that threatened species of birds are put into further peril, such as the critically endangered Balearic shearwater, and several threatened seaduck species which have been declining dramatically over the past decades. Our team, therefore, works together symbiotically to show that practical challenges out at sea may be overcome through rigorous scientific analysis and pioneering technical innovation, while political roadblocks on the mainland may be surmounted with passionate yet scientifically grounded advocacy work. 

The lack of transparency in relation to fishing activities (i.e. the what, where, when and whys) makes it very difficult to assess the precise scale and scope of the problem. In many cases, the lack of systematic data on the number of birds caught makes it difficult to identify the extent of seabird bycatch within a specific fishery, let alone resolve it. BirdLife works hard to shine a spotlight on this issue, and has being doing so for more than a decade around the world.

Cooperation is key and we are incredibly fortunate that there are many fishermen out there that feel as strongly as we do about safeguarding nature. Recently, in true nautical tradition, we have respectively asked 'Permission to come aboard Captain!' and we’re pleased to say that several skippers of fishing vessels in the Baltic, Atlantic and Mediterranean have responded with 'Permission granted'. With such projects in place, our teams of bycatch experts work alongside fishermen and scientists to understand how and why birds get caught and then create simple, technical solutions which can then be used by the fishing industry. Although change can be difficult, our collaborative approach helps identify the solutions that are right for fishing fleets within their local context. For Joaquim – the seasoned captain of the Olimpico, who has spent the last 36 years fishing along the Portuguese coast for sole, seabass and octopus – seabirds are part of the world he loves and working with BirdLife to help them has meant little disruption to his daily routine; in his own words, ‘it only takes a little effort to make a big difference for the birds’.

Thanks to such partnerships, we are currently trialling some highly promising mitigation methods for both gillnets and demersal longlines. While we will have to wait for the results, it should be stressed that other practical measures for reducing bycatch are already available for many different fishing gears. The over-arching problem is that the EU has lagged far behind in ensuring that solutions – referred to in Brussels circles as ‘technical measures’ are enshrined in law. If our wish for a safe flight for seabirds in 2017 is to come true, then the EU must set out new laws. These must not only ensure that bycatch data be recorded systematically by the fishing industry, they must also guarantee that technical rules – such as the mesh size of fishing nets – be determined by what is best for nature rather than by profit. Only then, will we have a ‘Happy New Year’ for seabirds. 

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Bruna Campos is EU Marine & Fisheries Policy Officer with BirdLife Europe and Central Asia

Marguerite Tarzia is European Marine Conservation Officer with BirdLife Europe and Central Asia

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.