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Longline fisheries continue to drive albatross declines

Posted on 14. July, 2011.

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A new global estimate of the impact of longline fisheries on seabirds reveals that, despite efforts to reduce seabird deaths, upwards of 300,000 birds are still being killed every year. The study by scientists from BirdLife International and the RSPB is published in the journal Endangered Species Research.

Since the 1980s, scientists have linked global declines of albatrosses and other seabirds with ‘incidental catch’ in longline fisheries. Adult and juvenile birds become snared on hooks attached to the lines, which can be over a hundred kilometres long, and are dragged underwater to a premature death.

Dr Orea Anderson, policy officer for the Global Seabird Programme and lead author of this study says, “It is little wonder that so many of the affected seabird species are threatened with extinction – their slow rate of reproduction is simply incapable of compensating for losses on the scale this study has demonstrated.”

A major factor determining this huge estimate is the increase in available data. Fishing fleets with previously unaccounted for bycatch problems are now adding to the global tally. The Spanish longline fleet on the Gran Sol grounds off Southwest Ireland is one such fleet, with preliminary data suggesting it may be responsible for killing more than 50,000  seabirds a year, mostly shearwaters and fulmars. The Japanese tuna fleet came second in scale with over 20,000 killed each year. This fleet had the largest impact on albatrosses.

Despite an exhaustive review, substantial data gaps remain (e.g. Nordic, Asian distant water, and Mediterranean fleets) and until these are filled it is impossible to gauge the true impact of global longline activities on seabirds. However, the continued declining trends in many seabirds remain a cause for grave concern. Seventeen out of 22 albatross species are threatened with extinction with the main threat coming from mortality in fisheries.

However, some fisheries have enforced strict regulations, resulting in substantial bycatch reductions in recent years. Seabird deaths around South Georgia in the Southern Ocean have declined by 99% since regulations were enforced. South Africa achieved a drop of 85% bycatch in its foreign-licensed fleet in 2008, when a cap was placed on the number of seabird deaths permitted. More recently, in April 2011, Brazil passed a law requiring the use of stringent seabird bycatch measures in their domestic tuna longline fleets.

BirdLife International and RSPB’s Global Seabird Programme are working with the industry reduce the number of seabirds being killed. Dr Cleo Small, senior policy officer for the Global Seabird Programme and co-author of the review, notes: “Using simple bird-scaring lines and weighting of hooks as they enter the water could dramatically reduce the number of seabirds being killed.”

The article, Global seabird bycatch in longline fisheries, by  Anderson ORJ, Small CJ, Croxall JP, Dunn EK, Sullivan BJ, Yates O, and Black A  is published in Endangered Species Research 14:91-106, doi:10.3354/esr00347.

In picture: Southern Royal Albatross. Photo courtesy of Mark Jobling.

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