31 Jul 2019

Seabird Sentinels will help mitigate bycatch

What can albatrosses tell us about their interaction with fishing vessels? With this new technology, we’ll find out. 

Wandering Albatrosses on Bird Island, South Georgia. © Stephanie Prince
By Ana Carneiro

The past few decades have not been good for Wandering Albatrosses. The population has declined to the extent that they are classified as globally Vulnerable to extinction. The primary threat to these birds, as for many other seabirds, is incidental mortality (bycatch) in fisheries. Seabirds are bycaught mainly when they swallow baited hooks and are drowned as the line sinks. It is a horrific death, but fortunately, mitigation measures already available can very successfully prevent the needless death of seabirds on fishing hooks.

The population of Wandering Albatrosses breeding at South Georgia – a remote island group in the South Atlantic - has declined rapidly since the 1960s. Yet since 2014, bycatch of seabirds in the local South Georgia longline fishery has dropped to negligible levels because of regulations introduced under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This has been achieved through the implementation of a combination of measures including seasonal closures, heavier line-weighting and night setting, and the deployment of bird-scaring lines.

However, while the reduction of seabird mortality in the CCAMLR Convention Area is exceptional, poor practices combined with little to no enforcement of regulations in seabird foraging areas further north mean that bycatch is still a major cause of decline for South Georgia Wandering Albatrosses and other Southern Ocean seabirds.

We urgently need more information about how and where these albatrosses interact with fishing vessels. This July, BirdLife International in collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey launched a new Darwin PLUS-funded project which will use cutting-edge bird-borne radar-detecting loggers in combination with other devices to answer these questions. Once attached to an albatross, the loggers record radar, 3-D acceleration and GPS location as well as the timings of all landings and flights. BirdLife scientists will analyse these data to determine the distance at which birds respond to vessels, and the proportion of time the birds spend behind each vessel (and therefore at risk of bycatch).

This technology has the power to clearly identify where and when in the Southern Ocean albatrosses are most susceptible to bycatch. With this new technology, stakeholders and policy makers will have crucial information for improving regulations, targeting bycatch observer programmes and monitoring compliance with recommended bycatch mitigation to reduce bycatch to negligible levels. A collaboration with Global Fishing Watch is also underway to identify radar signals detected by bird-borne loggers that do not correspond with a nearby satellite Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal, which may indicate that the vessel is engaging in illegal or unregulated fishing activity.

Bycatch is a major threat to seabirds worldwide, but it is also preventable. This innovative project has the potential to be a game-changer in conservation given its capacity for identifying Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels from bird-borne radar, its ability to identify bird interactions with fishing vessels and the potential future extension of the approach to other species and regions. We hope that our results will contribute to making all of the waters used by these ocean wanderers as safe as those around South Georgia.

This project was funded with help from Darwin PLUS. Follow them on Twitter @darwin_defra or Facebook @Darwininitiative