Ten years of successfully saving albatrosses

Black-browed Albatross breeds on West Point Island, Falkland Islands, a UK Overseas Territory. Photo: Albatross Task Force.
Black-browed Albatross breeds on West Point Island, Falkland Islands, a UK Overseas Territory. Photo: Albatross Task Force.
On World Oceans Day, an international team of experts that works to prevent seabirds getting killed by fishing lines is celebrating 10 years of conservation success.

The Albatross Task Force (ATF), a team of experts led by the RSPB and BirdLife International, was launched 10 years ago to reduce the number of albatrosses and petrels accidently killed by fisheries in the Southern Ocean as long-line fisheries by-catch.

This team of 'high seas heroes' has been highly successful in that time, achieving a 99 per cent reduction in albatross deaths in the South African hake trawl fishery through the introduction of bird-scaring lines, a simple solution which prevents seabirds from interacting with fishing equipment. Thanks to their work, seven out of the 10 fisheries originally identified as seabird by-catch hot-spots have now adopted regulations to protect seabirds during fishing. The ATF is working with local governments to ensure all target fleets are complying with the recommended mitigation methods.

Albatrosses are one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world. Every year, an estimated 100,000 albatrosses are incidentally killed on long-line fishing hooks and trawl cables. This fishery mortality is the main driver of albatross population declines, and 15 of the 22 species of albatross are currently threatened with extinction.

By-catch, as seen here on a fishing boat at Dellacasa, Argentina, in October 2015, can be excessive as dozens of endangered albatrosses become hooked and snagged on long-lines. Photo: Albatross Task Force.

The RSPB and BirdLife International launched the ATF to reduce the number of albatross and petrel deaths through the introduction of simple and effective mitigation measures, and ultimately to improve the conservation status of threatened seabirds. Measures include the use of bird-scaring lines, setting baited hooks under the cover of darkness and weighting hook-lines to help them sink rapidly out of reach of foraging birds. 

A new report shows that since its launch in 2006, the ATF has been extremely successful. As well as the success in South Africa, experimental trials demonstrate at least 85 per cent reductions in seabird by-catch are possible in six other fisheries where regulations that require the use of bird-safe methods on their boats are now in place.

The ATF works through BirdLife International partners and local NGOs in the southern hemisphere, and have spent over 5,000 days at sea to demonstrate how to keep seabirds off the hook. ATF recommendations are based on rigorous scientific testing, working side by side with the fishing industry.

Oliver Yates, ATF Programme Manager, said: “Albatrosses are magnificent seabirds and it’s a truly breathtaking experience to see them at sea. They are among the largest flying birds and have the largest wingspans of any bird in the world, reaching up to an incredible 3.5 m. Albatrosses spend most of their lives at sea and only come onto land to breed, and as a third of albatross [species] breed in UK Overseas Territories it is our duty to protect these threatened birds and encourage other governments to do the same while in their waters.

“The ATF have made some great achievements over the last 10 years but we still need to ensure all vessels in all fleets are effectively implementing the mitigation measures recommended for [fisheries], and that this becomes sustainable in the long-term.”

Patricia Zurita, CEO at Birdlife International, said: “BirdLife has proven this works with a decade of research, refining solutions and working with fishermen. Now it is time to expand this model worldwide so we can ensure no bird is needlessly caught by fisheries ever again in the future.”

Large reductions in seabird by-catch have been achieved where governments have supported the adoption of regulations, and the ATF has demonstrated that similar reductions of albatross deaths are possible in other target fisheries if these methods are put into practice.

Clemens Naomab, Albatross Task Force Instructor in Namibia, said: “When you find out you are saving 30,000 birds a year, it’s a wonderful experience. It’s worth all the days of seasickness!

“Fishermen don’t want to catch seabirds, it is accidental. The simple changes we introduce on boats and in policy not only eliminate this by-catch, but are good for fishermen, too. I don’t see another way that would work better than what we are doing now.”

To find out how you can help save the albatross visit www.rspb.org.uk/albatross.
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