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Albatross Survival Hangs on Longline Fishing Control Fight

WELLINGTON, New Zealand, September 17, 2003 (ENS) - New Zealand is the albatross capital of the world, and New Zealand's largest environmental advocacy organization is urging that the country's fishing fleet be required to use the same sea bird protection practices as Japanese vessels do when fishing in New Zealand waters.

Measures which have led to a 99 percent reduction in albatross deaths by Japanese tuna boats fishing in New Zealand waters should also apply to New Zealand boats says the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society.

Longline fishing kills more than 300,000 birds, including 100,000 albatrosses annually. Albatross are killed when they eat the fish bait, get caught on the hook and are drowned. The birds either drown or die of their injuries on baited hooks strung along lines up to 80 miles (130 kilometers) long.

“Japanese tuna boats fishing in New Zealand waters are required to take measures that reduce the by-catch of albatross and to have 100 percent observer coverage, said Forest and Bird’s senior researcher Barry Weeber.

Measures required of Japanese fishing vessels include compulsory scientific observers, night setting of lines, running tori lines behind the boats to discourage seabirds from targeting baits, and penalties for catching seabirds.

"They once killed over 4,000 albatross a year," Weeber said of the Japanese fleet. "Now they only catch less than 20 a year. This lesson has been ignored by the Ministry of Fisheries.”

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Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophrys, one of the species most affected by longline fishing (Photo by Richard Thomas courtesy BirdLife International)
But Fisheries Minister Pete Hodgson said the draft national plan of action to reduce seabird deaths that is now before the New Zealand public for comment is the correct way of approaching the issue because it relies upon voluntary measures, rather than on government regulation.

"Forest and Bird's denial of the value of voluntary measures to protect seabirds is poorly informed," Hodgson said. "The Japanese tuna boats that Forest and Bird praises for reducing seabird by-catch are in fact operating under a voluntary code of practice, just as the draft national plan of action proposes."

Weeber pointed out that New Zealand boats do not have to comply with the same standards as the Japanese boats and so have killed a lot more seabirds.

“One New Zealand longline boat recently caught 300 seabirds in a single month,” he said. “While some New Zealand boats apply high standards, many do not. New Zealand fishers are helping to drive albatross and petrels to extinction and that’s not acceptable,” he said.

Forest and Bird has renewed its call for compulsory measures to prevent albatross deaths through fishing after an international report released by BirdLife International on September 4 upgraded the threatened status of six albatross species.

New research synthesised by BirdLife International for the IUCN-World Conservation Union, and made public at a workshop on seabirds in Cape Town, South Africa reveals a further decrease in the populations of six of the 21 albatross species, including one species previously regarded as "safe," BirdLife said.

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An albatross drowned on a toothfish line (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Michael Rands, BirdLife International's director and chief executive, said, "The number of seabirds killed by longlines is increasing, as is the number of albatross species in the higher categories of threat due to their continued use."

Voluntary measures proposed by the New Zealand government are not enough to stem the decline of albatross, Forest and Bird says. The organization is calling for compulsory measures including mandatory observer coverage.

“New Zealand boats fishing for toothfish in the Ross Sea have to meet strict standards. Why are they allowed off the hook once they are back fishing in New Zealand waters?” Weeber asked.

“Government needs to end the double standard where it supports stricter regulation in international negotiations but does not apply those same measures to New Zealand boats fishing in New Zealand waters,” said Weeber.

Hodgson responds by criticizing Forest and Bird, which he said has overlooked "the considerable progress" that has been made recently by Southern Seabird Solutions, a voluntary alliance between the fishing industry, government agencies and environmental groups.

"Southern Seabird Solutions was set up a year ago to promote fishing practices that avoid seabird deaths. The group includes representatives from the fishing industry, environmental groups, government departments, Te Ohu Kai Moana, fisheries training organiaations, an eco-tourism company, Environment Australia, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, the Marine Stewardship Council, and Birdlife International," the fisheries minister explained.

"This group is already achieving valuable results, including industry training initiatives, codes of practice and trials of new technologies to reduce seabird deaths," Hodgson said. "The voluntary approach enables the industry to share responsibility for finding solutions, which promotes innovation."

The Seafood Industry Training Organisation (SITO) has developed a unit standard to teach trainee fishers about the impact of fishing on seabirds and the importance of using practices to reduce the chances that seabirds will be accidentally caught.

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The Indian Yellow-nosed albatross is now listed as endangered due to steep population declines. (Photo by Tony Palliser courtesy BirdLife)
The idea is to turn out fishers aware of the seabird issue and familiar with the range of solutions available.

SITO's Simon Reid says the unit standard has been designed for inclusion in the pre-sea training undertaken by new recruits to the fishing industry as well as experienced longline and trawler crews.

Two major fishing companies have already committed to putting their crews through the training, and Reid is confident that other companies will also take part. “Trainees are getting the message that what each of them does at sea really matters,” he says.

Solutions to this problem already exist and are in use, and more are being developed, Reid says. Bird-scaring lines are used to keep seabirds away from the sinking baits, and bait is dyed blue as the seabirds appear not to recognize the bait when it is that color.

Devices are used to set fishing lines underwater, loud sounds and bright lights are used to scare away the birds, weights attached to the fishing lines so that baits sink faster, and baits are set at night so they are less visible to the birds.

Southern Seabird Solutions convenor Janice Molloy, who also heads the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s seabird conservation program, says “It’s important that trainees enter the fishing industry aware of the seabird issue and knowledgeable about the range of good fishing practices that they can use to avoid accidentally killing seabirds."

More albatross species nest on New Zealand’s islands than anywhere else in the world. New Zealand is also the only place in the world where it is possible to visit a mainland albatross colony - at Dunedin’s Tairoa Head.

Six Albatross Species Increasingly Endangered:

  • Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross has been upgraded from Near Threatened in 2000 to Endangered in 2003 due to population declines recorded at long-term study colonies on Gough and Tristan da Cunha islands, indicating a 58 percent reduction over three generations - 71 years. If threats do not abate, population models suggest that the species may need to be classified as Critically Endangered, the final category before becoming Extinct;

  • Black-browed Albatross listed as Near Threatened in 2000 and Vulnerable in 2002, now becomes Endangered, with new census information from the Falkland Islands showing that the species is likely to be declining by more than 50 percent over three generations - 65 years.

  • Black-footed Albatross, listed as Vulnerable in 2000, now becomes Endangered, with new information and modelling from Hawaii revealing that declines are more serious than previously thought. The species is likely to be declining by more than 50 percent over three generations - 56 years.

  • Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, listed as Vulnerable in 2000, also now becomes Endangered with declines being more serious than previously thought, particularly at the stronghold population on Amsterdam Island in the French Southern Territories, and now at more than 50 percent over three generations - 71 years. The disease avian cholera is strongly implicated in this decline.

  • Laysan Albatross, listed as Least Concern in 2000, now becomes Vulnerable, with new information from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands showing declines of at least 30 percent over three generations - 84 years.

  • Sooty Albatross, listed as Vulnerable in 2000, now becomes Endangered 2003, with new information from breeding islands in the south Atlantic and Indian Oceans showing very serious declines of more than 75 percent over three generations - 90 years.

The most threatened species, the Amsterdam Albatross, already classified as Critically Endangered, is threatened by disease, BirdLife says, with the population now reduced to some 20 pairs breeding annually and increasing chick mortality.

BirdLife International’s new evaluation of albatross species will be included in the 2003 IUCN Red List which will be released at the end of this year. See: http://iucn.org/themes/ssc/red-lists.htm.



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