This blog series celebrates projects across the globe working with local communities to improve conservation efforts of some of the most vulnerable marine seascapes and species. For the month of June, we are celebrating the vast diversity found in the world’s oceans and highlighting projects that are striving to safeguard our seas for all species, from sei whales to seabirds.
The first post of the series outlines the increasing risks faced by wandering albatrosses in and around South Georgia and shares how these seabirds can help detect illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing vessels.
Reducing bycatch risk to wandering albatrosses through radar detection
There is increased global awareness that our oceans are under threat. Fishing and other human activities endanger a number of marine megafauna species such as seabirds, marine turtles, marine mammals, sharks and rays. Fisheries affect these top predators by directly competing for the same resources, deliberately targeting them for food, and through incidental capture (bycatch). Additionally, the behavioural and life-history traits of many marine megafauna populations make them particularly vulnerable. This is particularly true for these long-lived and slow-breeding species, where the smallest increases in mortality can result in significant population declines.
Unfortunately, this grim scenario applies to the wandering albatrosses breeding at South Georgia. The population has declined catastrophically since the 1960s, with longline fisheries playing a major threat. Despite their high levels of protection within the UK Overseas Territory, both on land and in local waters, many of these albatrosses fall victim to bycatch from longline fishing in their broader foraging range. Scavenging seabirds, lured by the prospect of an easy meal, are attracted towards fishing vessels by the bait and fish discards. Seabird bycatch in longline fisheries mainly occurs when they attack baited hooks, and become hooked and drowned as the line sinks.
The good news is that we already know what needs to be done to turn things around. If appropriate measures such as seasonal closures, heavier line-weighting, night setting, and the deployment of bird-scaring lines are implemented, bycatch can be reduced significantly in the future. In order for these mitigation measures to be effective, they need to be introduced in combination with close monitoring of compliance. Gaining a greater understanding of where, when and which fleets the wandering albatrosses are most likely to interact with will help stakeholders and policymakers to allocate the limited resources available to improve regulations. These efforts, coupled with targeting observer programmes, will enable bycatch rates and vessels’ compliance to be monitored.
The overall objective of our project is to link habitat preference, at-sea activity patterns and detections from novel bird-borne radars to better understand the interactions of tracked wandering albatrosses with legal and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing vessels. Thanks to Darwin Plus funding we have now partially completed our data collection at Bird Island, South Georgia. In November 2019, we deployed state-of-the-art loggers and transmitters on wandering albatrosses of different ages and sexes to quantify interactions of tracked birds with fishing vessels in the South Atlantic. Using our loggers we are able to monitor fisheries in remote areas in near-real time, with one of the biggest game changers being their capacity to identify IUU fishing. Much like other tracking devices, they are attached to the animal’s back feathers, and record GPS location during foraging trips. However, the devices we use also have something novel – they regularly scan the surroundings to detect the presence of a vessel radar. All ships at sea use radar for safety and operational reasons, which can be used to determine their proximity to our tracked birds. With these results, we hope to greatly improve our knowledge of where and when wandering albatrosses and other seabirds are at particular risk of bycatch.
Next year, after completing data collection and analysis, we will gather relevant stakeholders including representatives of fisheries management bodies and NGOs to discuss how the results of the project can feed into better targeting of bycatch mitigation, and monitoring of compliance and bycatch rates in the southwest Atlantic and elsewhere. We hope that our results will contribute to making all of the waters used by these ocean wanderers as safe as those around South Georgia.
For more information on project DPLUS092 led by British Antarctic Survey working in South Georgia please click here. The full article for this project can be found in the June 2020 edition of the Darwin Newsletter here.