World Fisheries Managers Let Seabirds Perish on Longlines

CAMBRIDGE, UK, March 9, 2005 (ENS) - The first review ranking the environmental performance of the world’s 19 intergovernmental Regional Fisheries Management Organizations finds that that most are failing to safeguard albatrosses, and the seabird populations are headed for extinction as a result.

The review by BirdLife International discovered that three of the 16 active regional organizations do little to prevent the slaughter of the world’s albatrosses in longline fisheries.

More than 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses, and thousands of marine mammals and turtles are killed by both legal and illegal longline fishing fleets every year.


Albatross hooked on a longline (Photo courtesy BirdLife International)
Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) are intergovernmental organizations with responsibility for managing high seas and migratory fish stocks such as tunas, swordfish, cod, toothfish and billfish. There are currently 19 RFMOs, of which 16 are active.

The Regional Fisheries Management Organizations of greatest concern, BirdLife found, are the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna, and the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna.

BirdLife says these organizations are doing "little or nothing to reduce the bycatch of seabirds, sharks and turtles in their fisheries, while at the same time many of their fish stocks have declined by more than 90 percent."

“These organizations have a legal and moral obligation to force the fisheries they govern to reduce this wildlife toll,” said BirdLife’s International Marine Policy Officer Dr. Cleo Small.

“But they are only as strong as the political will of the countries making them up," said Small. "Maximizing fish catches for export is still the top priority for many member countries, an approach which has left fish stocks and other marine species decimated with dire consequences for marine ecosystems and local fishing communities.”

The review will be presented to delegates at the Committee on Fisheries of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) meeting this week in Rome. This committee is the only global inter-governmental forum where major fisheries issues are reviewed, addressed and recommendations made to governments and regional fisheries’ bodies. Delegates from about 100 countries are attending the meeting at which BirdLife International has observer status.

The Committee on Fisheries has a long agenda including emerging fishing practices that pose new management challenges such as deep-sea fishing of bottom-dwelling stocks, sea turtle conservation, and the recovery of Indian Ocean countries after last December's tsunami. Seabird conservation is not on the agenda, but BirdLife hopes to bring the issue to the attention of delegates.


The wandering albatross is threatened by longline fishing in the Southern Ocean. (Photo by Tony Palliser courtesy BirdLife International)
Conclusions drawn in the BirdLife study were based on 114 criteria drawn in part from principles established in the FAO's 1995 Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, which is on the Committee's agenda for evaluation on its 10th anniversary.

Other criteria for BirdLife’s review are drawn from the UN Law of the Sea of 1994 and the UN Fish Stocks Agreement of 1995.

Only one of the 19 organizations, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), is taking a wide range of actions to tackle seabird bycatch in the waters under its jurisdiction, BirdLife found.

The seabird conservation community was encouraged by the remarks of HRH The Prince of Wales, speaking at the Taiaroa Head Royal Albatross colony in Dunedin, New Zealand Sunday.

Prince Charles made a heartfelt plea for governments and the fishing industry to adopt the use of seabird bycatch mitigation measures and establish more "no-take" marine parks or reserves.

“They would not only be crucial for the survival of the albatross and petrels, but they also have the potential to allow fish stocks to regenerate and provide natural reservoirs from which other areas of the ocean can be repopulated,” he said.


Prince Charles supports BirdLife campaigns to protect avian species. Here in June 2004, he announced his backing for BirdLife’s Sumatran Rainforest campaign. (Photo courtesy BirdLife International)
"Like many other one-time mariners I have a very special affection for the albatross," the Prince said.

"Only the other day there was further evidence of the mystery and majesty of these birds when a satellite-tagging research project proved what we have long suspected - that some quite literally circumnavigate the globe and the fastest does it in just 46 days."

"I find it hard - no, impossible - to accept that these birds might one day be lost for ever. Yet that does now seem to be a real possibility unless we, and others around the world, can make a sufficient fuss to prevent it," said the Prince.

"Nineteen of the 21 species of albatross are now under global threat of extinction, with some species now numbering under 100 individuals."

"The technology is simple, inexpensive and very effective," Prince Charles explained. "What is required are bird scaring lines which keep birds away from hooks during line setting; line weighting to sink hooks more quickly making them inaccessible to birds; fishing at night when most seabirds are less active; and ensuring that offal is not discharged while lines are fed out."

"Careful monitoring has proved beyond any doubt that using the right combination of these measures reduces the seabird by-catch to virtually zero. This is not rocket science," he said, "just good basic fisheries management."

Concerning seabird bycatch mitigation measures Prince Charles said, “The real challenge is to make these solutions mandatory on every longline vessel, not just some.”

Currently, there is no uniform global requirement that fishing vessels use equipment that will keep seabirds safe, only a confusing patchwork of regulations.

“It is mandatory for New Zealand vessels to use a combination of seabird bycatch mitigation measures when fishing in Antarctic waters under CCAMLR. But these measures are not mandatory in New Zealand waters, immediately adjacent,” said Kevin Hackwell, conservation director of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand.


There are technical solutions. Here, an underwater line-setting tube fitted to the back of a longliner. In operation, the tube swings behind the boat and the baited hooks are set below the surface, out of reach of scavenging seabirds. (Photo courtesy BirdLife)
Forest and Bird is asking the New Zealand government to remove this double standard and adopt the CCAMLR requirements as minimum mandatory measures within the National Plan of Action for Reducing Seabird By-catch.

New Zealand should set a target of reducing seabird bycatch by 90 percent over the next two years and ensure adequate independent observer coverage to verify these measures are used, the conservation group said. In Falkland Islands fisheries these measures have led to a more than 90 percent reduction in seabird bycatch.

The BirdLife review observes that populations of albatrosses, dolphins, sharks and turtles have plummeted, partly because many of the 19 Regional Fisheries Management Organizations governing the world’s seas are ignoring international laws requiring action to safeguard marine wildlife and tackle pirate fishing.

Longline fishing is deadly to seabirds, including albatrosses. A longline is made up of a main line with numerous branchlines ending in baited hooks. Longlines can be more than 80 miles (130 km) long and carry up to 10,000 hooks.

As the baited line is set behind the longline vessel, it floats on the sea surface before sinking. Seabirds – especially albatrosses and petrels – are attracted to the bait and accidentally hooked as bycatch as they attempt to swallow it. The ensnared birds are then dragged under and drowned as the fishing line sinks.

Albatrosses are being killed faster than they can re-populate, BirdLife says. The proportion of albatross species threatened with extinction increased from one-third to 19 out of the 21 albatross species between 1994 and 2004.

Albatrosses mate for life, the larger species usually producing one chick just once every two years. They may be up to 15 years old before they breed and have a lifespan of at least 50 years. But now, says BirdLife, most albatrosses are dying long before they reach that age.

Prince Charles said that to him, "the albatross may be the ultimate test of whether or not, as a species ourselves, we are serious about conservation: capable of co-existing on this planet with other species."