Sunday, January 13, 2008

Interview with Dr. Cleo Small of Save the Albatross

It may be easy to overlook threats to the world's albatross because they spend much of their lives in the open ocean and nest in remote places. Thankfully, the Save the Albatross campaign is around to fight for birds that could otherwise slip out of the public consciousness.

The Save the Albatross campaign is a joint venture between BirdLife International, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Volvo Ocean Race. The group has identified the fishing practice of longlining as the biggest threat to albatross, and claims that 100,000 albatrosses die each year on fish hooks. I asked Dr. Small, the campaign's International Marine Policy Officer, about longlining and the future of the world's albatross.

black-browed albatross

How many of the world's albatross species are threatened by longlining?
Nineteen of the world's 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction. Longlining has been identified as the major threat to many of these species.

Has longlining been increasing or has just the number of fisherman (is this a growing problem?)
Longlining began in the 1950s, and increased rapidly from the 1960s to the early 1990s.

What are the most dangerous areas for albatross?
The highest concentrations of albatrosses are found in the Southern Hemisphere, between around 30-50 degrees South. In these high latitudes, the consistent winds enable the albatrosses flight, and there are rich foraging grounds in upwellings such as on the Patagonian Shelf and Benguela Current. In addition though, the North Pacific is home to four species of albatross, and the Humboldt Current which occurs off the west Coast of South America, is also a key area used by New Zealand albatrosses during the non-breeding season.

Are other birds also being killed by longlining?
The species that seem most susceptible to being caught on longlines are albatrosses and larger petrels (typically those over 400g in weight). Other species are recorded however.

How successful have the various protection measures been (scaring devices, dyed bait, chutes, nighttime rigging etc.)
Simple measures such as bird scaring lines, putting extra weights on the fishing lines, setting lines at night, or blue-dyed bait can be highly effective at reducing bycatch. Reductions of 80 to 90% can be achieved under test conditions, particularly when measures are used in combination. Each of the measures has strengths and weaknesses: for example setting lines at night may be more effective for albatrosses than petrels, since the latter also forage at night; weighting lines means that the line sinks more quickly out of reach of the seabirds, but there is still a 'danger zone' of some size behind the vessel, weights are more effective when used in combination with a bird scaring line.

Is there resistance from fisherman about adopting these measures, other than the cost?
The measures listed above are typically inexpensive. A greater anxiety from fishermen is that the measures will interfere with their fishing operations, affect their fish catch, or that the measures will be a hassle to set up and use. BirdLife's Albatross Task Force works with fishermen to overcome these fears. When set up correctly, measures such as a bird streamer work very effectively and easily. When set up incorrectly, the streamer can break or tangle with the line. It's a two-way process of dialogue, using the ideas from the fishermen too, in order to improve the design of measures.

How can pirate fisherman be stopped?
There are a range of measures being put in place world wide to try to reduce Illegal Unregulated and Unreported fishing. Modern technology is also helping. Measures include Vessel Monitoring Systems which use satellite tracking technology to monitor where legal boats are, at-sea inspection and catch documentation schemes. A key element is port inspection and control, such that only licensed vessels with the correct documentation can offload their fish at ports. In the Southern Ocean, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources has reduced IUU fishing by about 75% in recent years.

If not given adequate protection, how much time do we have before some species disappear?
Some of the most rapid declines in albatross populations are occurring on South Georgia (Georgias del Sur) in the South Atlantic. Here, Wandering Albatross populations are declining by as much as 4% per year, and populations have declined by 30% in the last 20 years.


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