February 2, 2008

Fishermen Agree to Protect Seabirds

Fishing fleets around the world have agreed to new measures to reduce deaths and injuries to albatross and other endangered seabirds that pursue the fleets' baited hooks.  The measures, which take effect this year in Atlantic and Pacific ocean fleets, include the use of streamer lines to drive birds away from boats' sterns as miles of baited hooks, are being set, along with dying bait blue to conceal it in dark water.

In their hunt for food that often takes them across international waters, seabirds are particularly vulnerable to being hooked on longlines used to catch tuna and other fish.

"You have birds that are attracted to the fishing vessels because they see it as a feeding opportunity," said Kim Rivera, national seabird coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in an Associated Press report. "The birds congregate there. They see it as a free meal. They clue in on the baited hook and go after it."

"Both of these [new] measures are mandatory requirements for the vessels that are fishing in those areas," Rivera said.

Late last year, two commissions that oversee international fishing agreed to the measures, which also require fleets from more than 30 nations to abide by certain practices to avoid killing the birds. Rivera said the practices would vary depending upon the regions involved.

"There is really no one single measure that works 100 percent of the time," Rivera said.

For example, measures that could be used for tuna and swordfish in the Atlantic include fishing at night when birds are less active, weighting fishing lines so that the baited hooks sink more quickly and using long streamers.

"Those streamers whip around and basically scare the birds away," Rivera said.

Comparable techniques could be employed in the Pacific, with some longliners required to fish at night and others being barred from discharging fish waste at the same time as baited hooks are being set.

Taiwan, Japan and Korea are among the nations with large fleets that have agreed to the measures.

In the United States, NOAA is considering whether similar measures are needed off the coasts of Washington and Oregon.  Currently, only Alaska and Hawaii require longliners to use anti-hooking measures.

The first international organization to require the measures was Antarctica's Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.   In the late 1990s, an estimated 6,000 albatross a year were being accidentally caught in the region.  However, no albatross have been unintentionally caught there in the last two years.

"That commission has been very successful in preventing the hooking of several types of albatross in the Antarctic," Rivera said.   

Alaska's longline fishermen began using streamer lines in the late 1990s and have found them to be very effective, said Dan Falvey, who helped design the lines for smaller vessels.  Falvey is captain of the Myriad out of Sitka.

Streamer lines are attached to the stern and extend out between 150 to 300 feet behind the boat.   Vessels will often use a streamer line on either end of the stern, creating a box where the longlines are set inside. Long strings of orange surgical tubing are placed every 15 or 20 feet along the streamer line with the tubing extending to the surface of the water.

"What it creates is a moving fence around the gear that is being set and the birds are afraid to cross it," Falvey told AP.

The new international agreement is particularly important for the short-tailed albatross found in the northern Pacific.  The large black-and-white birds with cream-colored heads and distinctive pink and blue bills breed only in Japan, and are listed as endangered with a worldwide population of only 2,300.

At one time, there were up to 5 million short-tailed albatross.  Then commercial feather hunting for feathers used in bedding, quilts and coats a hundred years ago devastated the population until eventually it was feared the birds might have become extinct.   But in1939, a volcano eruption occurred on Torishima Island, home to the breeding colony about 360 miles south of Tokyo.   If it hadn't been for young birds at sea, it might have been the end for the short-tailed albatross.


On the Net:

NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service:

International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas:

Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission:

Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources: