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By Alan Munro, International Marine Policy Project Officer, RSPB (Birdlife in the UK)

Everyone loves a good news story! And boy do we have one…hold on tight.

After over a decade of work with the country’s fishing industry and fisheries managers, the Albatross Task Force (ATF) in Namibia are celebrating a major conservation success. A new paper hot off the press shows that seabird deaths in the Namibian demersal longline fishery have been reduced by 98%. That equates to 22,000 birds saved every year! Yes, you read that right. What a win.

This achievement is thanks to effective government regulation and dedicated grassroots engagement with the industry by our dedicated team of seabird bycatch instructors, including Titus Shaanika (read an interview with Titus) and team leader Samantha Matjila. The Task Force engage directly with the fishing industry and demonstrate the simple measures that can prevent birds being caught on longline fishing hooks or killed by collisions with the thick steel cables that haul trawl nets through the water.

One of the Task Force’s first jobs was to establish the scale of the seabird bycatch issue in Namibia. The results were rather shocking: Namibia’s hake trawl and longline fisheries were found to be among the world’s deadliest for seabirds: an estimated 30,000 birds were being killed each year. What was even more concerning was that this included threatened species like the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche chlororhynchos (Endangered) and White-chinned Petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis (Vulnerable).

Samantha Matjila and Titus Shaanika at work on a Namibian freezer trawler © ATF
Samantha Matjila and Titus Shaanika at work on a Namibian freezer trawler © ATF
Bird-scaring lines in action in a Namibian longline fishery © John Paterson
Bird-scaring lines in action in a Namibian longline fishery © John Paterson

Mitigation become law
The Task Force quickly set to work and started meeting with the fishing industry to show them seabird ‘mitigation measures’ like bird-scaring lines – simple lines with colourful streamers towed behind the vessel that act as ‘scarecrows’ and keep birds away from baited hooks or dangerous trawl cables. After many thousands of hours at sea and in ports building support for these measures and the importance of protecting seabirds, in 2015 the team were successful in advocating for fishery regulations requiring the use of mitigation measures by law.

These news laws meant that bird-scaring lines were widely adopted across the fleet, and the new study demonstrates just how effective the potent combination of grassroots engagement and solid regulations has been.

Samantha Matjila, the Namibia ATF Team Leader with the Namibia Nature Foundation, reflected: “It’s truly wonderful to see bycatch drop by such a huge amount in Namibia. Our waters are crucial for many globally threatened seabirds – to think that our collaborative efforts with all the vessels and the fishery managers have resulted in more than 22,000 birds being saved every year is something special. With the right levels of government investment and support, we hope that low levels of bycatch can be sustained long into the future, and that Namibia can serve as a marine conservation inspiration at a time when it is sorely needed!”

The Namibian team have also been able to connect bycatch reduction to female empowerment by partnering with local women’s group Meme Itumbapo. The group have been building bird-scaring lines to sell to the fleet for over 6 years now and have recently signed an agreement to partner with one of the major fisheries supply companies in Walvis Bay to continue their work.

The White-chinned Petrel (Vulnerable) also benefits from Namibia's new laws © Alistair J King
The White-chinned Petrel (Vulnerable) also benefits from Namibia’s new laws © Alistair J King

What’s the next step?

Since albatrosses are very long-lived birds (some species breed right up into their 60s!), we need to ensure that the approaches developed by the Task Force are hard-wired into long-term management of the fishery. Titus Shaanika, Senior ATF Instructor in Namibia, notes: “The industry has done a remarkable job to reduce seabird bycatch so substantially over such a short period. The big challenge now is to keep up those hard-earned reductions, and to wear them as a badge of honour – we can and we must do more of this across the world if we want turn the tide on biodiversity loss.”

Speaking of badges of honour, the hake fishery recently secured MSC Certification as sustainable sea food, and bird bycatch was an important consideration in the assessment.  The fishery picked up some conditions of certification – including the need to improve compliance with bird-scaring line use in the trawl fleet, and to ensure that robust data collection on bycatch continues, showing that the fishery is not having impacts on vulnerable seabird populations.

These results are certainly timely for other countries like the UK, whose own National Plan of Action for reducing seabird bycatch is under development. A close cousin of the albatross – the Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis – is being caught in longline fisheries operating off the north coast of Scotland.

Rory Crawford, Bycatch Programme Manager for the BirdLife International Marine Programme, highlighted the opportunity to follow the lead shown in Namibia: “There is lots to be learned in the UK from the success story in Namibia. The ingredients of at-sea engagement, mitigation measure testing, strong regulations and very high observer coverage – 100% in some fleets – in Namibia could easily be translated to our waters if the will and resources can be found. So, what are we waiting for?”

The Namibian team is the second of five ATF teams across the world to have achieved a more than 90% seabird bycatch reduction, following a similar success in South Africa in 2014, where albatross bycatch was reduced by 95% in the hake trawl fishery. In the next two years the aim is to demonstrate similar reductions in Argentina and Chile, and to have furthered this major contribution to the improved conservation status of some of the world’s most remarkable – yet threatened – birds.