Namibia becomes seabird friendly

White-chinned Petrel has been one of the species suffering from long-line and trawling by-catch in Namibia. Photo: Mjobling (commons.wikimedia.org).
White-chinned Petrel has been one of the species suffering from long-line and trawling by-catch in Namibia. Photo: Mjobling (commons.wikimedia.org).
A law has been passed in Namibia to protect 30,000 seabirds from death by trawling or long-line fishing in what has been the world’s worst fishery for by-catch.

In 2013, fishermen on board two fishing fleets set out from Walvis Bay in Namibia, hauling out nets and lines as per usual. Unbeknown to them, they would return into port for the final time that year with a death toll totalling around 30,000 seabirds having been killed accidentally.

“It’s really sad to see a drowned bird, especially the big ones, because you know their long life cycle [and] that they have chicks waiting for them in nests,” remembers Clemens Naomab, BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force Coordinator in Namibia. “It can be avoided by simple measures.”

BirdLife considers Namibia fisheries as the world’s worst for seabird by-catch, and its Albatross Task Force (ATF) has been working hard with fishermen out at sea, onshore through workshops and with government officials to turn this around completely.

“It got a lot of attention [from] the ‘people upstairs’," says Clemens. “The regulations have now been implemented, so we’re hoping to reduce the by-catch by at least 85-90 per cent”.
It is now obligatory for Namibia's two fleets to use simple solutions that will effectively end seabird by-catch in Namibia: bird-scaring lines for the 70 trawl fishing vessels and bird-scaring lines, plus line-weighting and night-setting techniques for the 12 long-liners. This will make a huge difference to White-chinned Petrel (listed by BirdLife as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List), which are mostly caught by long-line hooks, and albatrosses such as Black-browed (Near Threatened) and Atlantic Yellow-nosed (Endangered) getting caught in trawl cables.

Fifteen out of 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, but it’s hard to explain this to a fisherman when he sees 500 birds surrounding his vessel every day for an ‘easy meal’. Spending up to 12 days at a time at sea, Clemens and other ATF instructors build a relationship with the crew: “I explain to them the situation. They are amazed the albatrosses live for 60 years. I haven’t had a bad experience, they want to save the birds when they understand.” The Namibian Hake Association were clearly moved as they voluntarily adopted the measures last year.

Now after a lobbying effort from BirdLife and local ATF partner Namibia Nature Foundation, the Minister of Fisheries and the Chief Fisheries Scientists have driven forward the regulations fully – meaning it is a legal requirement to ensure Namibia’s fishing fleet is ‘seabird safe’. Non-compliance now carries stiff penalties: NAD$ 500,000 (£27,900) and up to 10 years imprisonment. But with the ATF and an ‘observer’ network out on vessels to show how easy and cheap the measures are, and that they don’t interfere with daily fishing practices, there should hopefully be no need for a prosecution.

“We are working with a fisheries observer agency to ensure the monitoring of compliance on board, and we hope to report on fleet-wide seabird by-catch reductions soon,” says Oli Yates, Global Coordinator, Albatross Task Force.

The ATF also works with a women’s cooperative, who make locally-made bird-scaring lines for even the most reluctant fishing fleets, while providing these women with an income as well. “They’re a group of elderly ladies working close to the port in a centre called ‘Bird’s Paradise’, and they’ve built hundreds of bird-scaring lines already”, explains Clemens. “I invite them to our workshops so they can see how their lines are helping birds. They feel good about it, and do a great job.”

The ATF model is proving very successful across the world, having reduced albatross by-catch in South Africa by 99 per cent. As the ATF celebrates its 10th Anniversary this year, with 5,000 days spent at sea so far, it pledges to reduce seabird by-catch in all priority fisheries by 80 per cent by 2020.