Working to save an iconic series - Veterinary Practice
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Working to save an iconic series

Andrew Coe is concerned about the plight of the albatross

The albatross is an iconic bird. When I worked in the Falkland Islands I was lucky enough to come face to face with one of the 22 species on numerous occasions.

Sitting on a remote sea cliff in the middle of a colony of blackbrowed albatross is an unforgettable and moving experience. Black and white birds the size of turkeys and with a wingspan beyond the height of a man, wheel and soar in the air with hardly the flap of a wing or a ruffle of a feather.

Their breeding partners sit aloft a raised nest of mud, incubating a single egg and completely unperturbed by the human sitting just a few feet away from them.

All the albatross species live and breed in the southern hemisphere, the nearest thing we have to them in the north is the gannet. They have few if any natural predators but of late their numbers have been dropping alarmingly and it is thought that 75% of the species face extinction if the trend is not quickly reversed. The reason is the tens of thousands of birds that are killed each year by longline fishing vessels.

Preferred method

Longlining is the preferred method of catching several species of high-value fish such as tuna, swordfish and Patagonian toothfish. The lines can be tens of miles long and carry thousands of baited hooks which are dragged behind the fishing boat.

The danger to albatross is during the casting phase when baited hooks close to the surface attract the albatross which dive to catch the bait, impaling themselves on the hooks and ending up drowned.

Whilst the above problem might seem an intractable one, an initiative launched in South Africa in 2006, The Albatross Task Force project, has cut the number of birds killed in South African waters by 85%.

The project is a joint effort by the RSPB and Birdlife International and involves specialist instructors accompanying the boats on fishing trips and showing the fishermen how to prevent birds becoming caught.

The measures are simple and, importantly, cheap, with the main technique being the attachment of brightly coloured streamers known as Tori lines to the back of the vessel. These flap in the wind and scare the birds away from the danger area, allowing the baited lines to sink out of the birds’ reach without being attacked.

Other measures include casting the lines at night when there is no bird activity and attaching added weights to the lines so that they sink more rapidly. In addition to instigating such measures, the conditions for obtaining a fishing permit have been changed to stipulate than no more than 25 birds must be caught as “by-catch” during fishing trips.

The success of this initiative is its simplicity and also that the fishermen themselves have no desire to catch sea birds; indeed, every bird caught means one less baited hook is available to catch the target species.

Expanding the scheme

The RSPB is now hoping that the scheme can be expanded to other countries until the whole of the southern ocean is made safe in this way.

Similar problems also exist closer to home. Recently in the news were the salmon fishermen of Filey Bay off the North Yorkshire coast. Last summer the RSPB filmed large numbers of birds, mainly razorbills, drowning in the fishermen’s gill nets and has now asked the Environment Agency, which licenses the fishery, to legislate in an effort to reduce the impact of the practice on the birds.

The Agency has responded by funding a study to look at the impact of the “bycatch” on bird numbers and to find ways of minimising it so that a sustainable and environmentally friendly fishery can be maintained. Finding a simple solution to the problem is in everyone’s interest and particularly so to the birds.

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