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You’d think a Sei Whale would be hard to miss. But despite reaching 15 m long and 20 tons in weight, they can slip through the water leaving barely a ripple, and their lives remain a mystery to scientists and seafarers alike. So how has such a colossal mammal swum under the radar for so long?

Inevitably, much of the blame can be laid on humans. Around 200,000 Sei Whales were slaughtered in the mid-20th century in the southern hemisphere alone, driving the species to the brink of extinction. Today the Sei Whale is still globally Endangered, and much of what we know about it comes from data collected during the whaling period.

The gentle giant also moves in mysterious ways. In most parts of the world it inhabits deep, offshore areas, making it hard to track its global migration routes or behaviour. So imagine the delight of researchers from Falklands Conservation (BirdLife Partner) when they realised that the species was visiting the islands’ pristine coastal waters every summer and autumn, to feast on clouds of tiny crustaceans that swarmed in the area. This virtually unique situation gave them the chance to observe and study the species like never before.

Part of this research involved photographing the fins and flanks of the whales to keep track of the unique combination of nicks and scars that characterised each individual. The team has catalogued about 500 different Sei Whales to date, gaining fascinating glimpses into their individual lives.

A Sei Whale mother and calf © Christin Khan / NOAA

One whale, nicknamed ‘Wonky’ due to an unusually bent dorsal fin, was found to have travelled from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to the Falkland Islands, a straight-line journey of over 3,300 km in six months. This is one of the first insights into the migration destinations of this species. Another whale was sighted in 2019 and again in 2020, the second time accompanied by a young calf. This mother was dubbed ‘Moana’ in a Sei Whale naming contest run on the Falklands Conservation Facebook page to raise awareness of the vital site.

The recognition doesn’t end there, though. Thanks to years of research, the islands have now been confirmed as a Key Biodiversity Area, making them a globally important hotspot for recovering Sei Whale populations. In a poetic twist, the area borders a former whaling station now owned by Falklands Conservation.

Dr Caroline Weir, Sei Whale project lead for Falklands Conservation, says: “We are incredibly proud of achieving this Key Biodiversity Area for Endangered Sei Whales, which is the culmination of five years of pioneering and challenging field research. It has really highlighted the importance of the Falkland Islands for this poorly-known species. It’s a privilege to work in an area where whale populations appear to be thriving, and fantastic to now see that work translating into global recognition and contributing to the future conservation of these amazing animals.”

“It’s a privilege to work in an area where whale populations appear to be thriving.”

Dr Caroline Weir, Sei Whale project lead, Falklands Conservation

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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.