Marine: Ending seabird bycatch
Longline and trawl fisheries are estimated to kill over 300,000 seabirds each year, the majority of which are albatrosses and petrels. These accidental deaths, known as bycatch, are the result of birds becoming caught on or colliding with fishing gear and subsequently drowning.
In 2005, BirdLife launched the world’s first international team of seabird bycatch mitigation experts to combat this issue: the Albatross Task Force. By working with fishers to demonstrate and develop simple and inexpensive ways to stop killing seabirds, and working with governments to implement regulations, the Albatross Task Force has demonstrated that things can drastically change, with albatross bycatch reductions of up to 99% reported in South Africa.
Albatrosses mainly feed on squid and fish on the surface of the water, so foraging for bait or discarded fish around fishing vessels mirrors their natural behaviour. Using seabird tracking data, we can locate areas where seabirds are at greatest risk of being killed in fisheries - and advocate for the introduction of the following bycatch prevention measures:
- Bird scaring lines - 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 actively forage 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 on them.
Bird scaring line in action © Leo Tamini
Across South America and Southern Africa, our Albatross Task Force teams work directly alongside fishers on board their vessels, braving harsh weather and seasickness to share their knowledge on how to use these techniques, troubleshoot problems, and even develop new bycatch prevention measures where needed.
We also strive to get bycatch prevention measures ingrained in law. Much of our work has focused on the world’s five tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organisations – whose fisheries overlap with 80% of the world’s albatross distribution. Thanks in part to our advocacy, all five of these organisations now require their longline vessels to use seabird bycatch prevention measures when fishing in areas overlapping with albatross distribution.
One area of cutting-edge science that BirdLife is currently exploring is finding solutions to seabird bycatch in gillnets. Gillnets are static curtains of netting, designed to entangle fish by their gills, which are essentially invisible underwater and present a high bycatch risk for diving seabirds. Globally, an estimated 400,000 seabirds die in gillnets each year yet no proven, effective technical solutions to prevent this currently exist. BirdLife is engaged in a variety of projects to identify critical areas for action and is leading the way in the search for a solution to this issue that works for both birds and fishing communities.
Drawing on our experience of reducing albatross bycatch, BirdLife’s bycatch work has grown. We are now working to tackle seabird and sea turtle bycatch in West Africa, and the successful Albatross Task Force model of grass-roots engagement is being used by BirdLife partners working with European fisheries operating both within European and in African waters. We hope that the impact of this work will continue to spread in the coming years, enabling fishers to increase the sustainability of their fisheries, and saving thousands of seabirds from being accidentally caught and killed.
Download the infographic © Rachel Hudson
Albatross Task Force Annual Report
Read the 2021 gillnet bycatch workshop report here.
If you work in fisheries and would like to know more about how to mitigate seabrid bycatch, you can find the latest best practice advice from the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels here.