Changing Planet

Fishermen Work to Reduce Albatross Deaths

By Susan Jackson

The albatross and life at sea have been linked for centuries.

But the death of an albatross means far more than bad luck for sailors.  It signifies a serious threat to the ecosystem of the world’s oceans – so much so that the organizations that manage fisheries across the globe have established new measures aimed at diminishing the number of seabirds that are perishing as bycatch in today’s tuna fishing operations.  These measures have been shown to reduce bycatch by 80 to 90%, especially when they are used in combination.

Seventeen of the world’s 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction.  Longlining in tuna fisheries has been identified as a major threat to many of these species, with tens of thousands of albatrosses dying each year on fishhooks, according to Birdlife International.

In response to this critical situation – made visible in large part due to the work of BirdLife and other groups – tuna regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) have strengthened their bycatch mitigation requirements.

Specifically, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT)the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) and the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) now require longline vessels south of 25°S (30°S for WCPFC) to use two mitigation measures, chosen from:

  • bird scaring lines (to keep birds away from the hooks);
  • night setting (when many birds are less active); or
  • branchline weighting (to sink hooks more quickly away from the reach of birds).

When used, these tools will be highly effective at reducing bycatch.  But for fishers whose chief concern is landing catch, a clear understanding of such tools is certainly needed and can impact how well the tools work.  That’s why, as part of our commitment to reducing bycatch and promoting ecosystem health, the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF) is pleased to support BirdLife’s seabird bycatch workshop.

On November 11th and 12th, BirdLife and the Taiwanese Fisheries Agency gathered stakeholders in Taiwan – whose longline fleet fishes in waters with the greatest albatross distribution ­­– for this important educational opportunity.  Participants included observers and fishing captains and masters as well as representatives from fisheries management agencies.  The agenda consisted of training and demonstrations, including a day onboard a Taiwanese vessel to increase understanding of seabird bycatch mitigation in a Taiwanese context.

This type of collaboration between industry, scientists and the people on the front lines of the world’s fisheries is the key to mitigating seabird bycatch – a mission that everyone can get behind.  Because for every seabird that is taken as bycatch, there is a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem.  In many ways, the life characteristics of sea birds are a lot like ours.  They mate later in life and when they do most sea birds lay one egg; very few can lay up to three.  Once a chick is born, sea birds spend months being a caretaker. They don’t do it alone but they do tend to have a mating partner for life, and if either partner dies it can take years to find another mate.  And like us, these majestic creatures can live to be upwards of 70 years old.  Every sea bird matters, which is why protecting them is so important.

Susan Jackson is President of ISSF, a global partnership among scientists, tuna processors and environmental non-profits to undertake science-based initiatives for the long-term conservation and sustainable use of tuna stocks, reducing bycatch and promoting a healthy marine ecosystem. 

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