The Albatross Task Force: reducing albatross deaths by 99%
The Albatross Task Force, led by BirdLife International and its UK partner, the RSPB, is an international team of experts on a mission to reduce seabird bycatch by 80% in some of the world's deadliest fisheries.
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a sailor kills an albatross and thereafter, as a punishment, is forced to wear its carcass around his neck. And so albatrosses came unfairly to represent a burden from which one couldn’t escape. However, the literary phrase has it all backwards. It fails to capture the terrible burden humans place on this group of huge, majestic seabirds, which range widely across the Southern Ocean and the North Pacific.
Albatrosses are stunning, long-lived seabirds that spend much of their lives soaring over the ocean. Inevitably, this lifestyle brings them into contact with fishing vessels. Sadly, they’re often accidentally captured in fishing gear, driving declines in their population. 15 of the 22 albatross species are now threatened with extinction.
Scientists have found that albatrosses and large petrels spend 39% of their time on the high seas – areas of ocean where no single country has jurisdiction. We are working to make sure these vital habitats don’t fall through the cracks. Using tracking data from 5,775 birds across 39 species, researchers found that all species regularly cross into the waters of other countries, meaning that no single nation can adequately ensure their conservation. Furthermore, all species depended on the high seas: international waters that cover half of the world’s oceans and a third of the earth’s surface.
By working on board vessels, showing fishing crews simple ways to stop killing seabirds, and with governments to implement regulations, we’ve demonstrated that things can drastically change for the better. South Africa has been a shining example of how this is can work, with an astounding 99% reduction in albatross deaths since our team started there in 2006.
But how? It turns out that a few simple and inexpensive practices, known as ‘bycatch mitigation measures’, are highly effective in preventing these unintentional deaths. Our tested and scientific solutions include:
- Bird scaring lines
Bird-scaring lines (also known as tori lines) are lines with colourful streamers that can be towed behind fishing vessels to scare birds away from baited hooks or trawl cables.
- Night setting
Fishing at night can significantly reduce seabird bycatch, since most seabird species don’t search for food in the dark.
- Line weighting
Adding weights to longlines makes baited hooks sink faster. This reduces the window of opportunity for foraging seabirds to attack the baits and get caught.
In addition to working with fleets to follow these “best practice” mitigation measures, we’re also working to develop new mitigation measures, and troubleshoot problems with existing measures.
“I love how my work is contributing towards creating awareness amongst fishermen and coastal communities regarding the importance of Namibia’s marine resources and why we should conserve them.
Employment opportunities for a local women’s group were also created through the Albatross Task Force project, who are now responsible for the building and selling of “tori lines” (seabird bycatch mitigation measures). In addition, I hope to achieve an improved/healthy marine ecosystem through making small but significant changes by creating a beneficial balance between humans and the marine wildlife.”
Samantha Matjila, Albatross Task Force, Namibia
After over a decade of work with the country’s fishing industry, the Albatross Task Force in Namibia are celebrating a major conservation success. A new paper shows that seabird deaths in the Namibian demersal longline fishery have been reduced by 98%, which equates to 22,000 birds saved every year.
As with many of the world’s albatross species, bycatch from fisheries is a major threat to Wandering Albatrosses. A new study led by BirdLife and the British Antarctic Survey, in collaboration with Global Fishing Watch, revealed that over half of Wandering Albatrosses that breed on Bird Island, South Georgia, come into contact with fishing vessels from multiple fishing nations. Bycatch risk was highest along the Patagonian Shelf break, highlighting the critical need for conservationists to work with multiple fleets to implement best-practice mitigation measures in the region.