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Posted on Saturday, September 02, 2000 - 01:44 pm:   

From The Times

August 19 2000 COUNTRY LIFE

Irresponsible fishing techniques are a huge threat to these splendid sea birds, says Michael Brooke

An SOS for the albatross

Albatrosses are tough. Even when the relentless gales of the Roaring Forties turn the southern oceans into a maelstrom of spindrift, the albatrosses just glide on in their search for squid. Their only apparent concession to the wind is to fly lower, side-slipping the wind and gliding along the leeward sides of the mountainous 50-foot waves.

Even when those 100mph winds scour the flat islands where the wandering albatrosses place their grassy pedestal nests, the birds continue to incubate. There is no question of quitting the egg.

Yet this fortitude is no defence against the earth's dominant species, mankind. The slaughter of five million short-tailed albatrosses in the North Pacific by feather hunters all but exterminated the species.

And these hazards could be eclipsed by a murderous 21st century threat. It is the fishing technique known as long-lining which, according to the Cambridge-based BirdLife International, has put 16 of the world's 21 albatross species under threat of extinction.

It is ironic that the 1992 ban on "wall-of-death" drift nets on the high seas, in order to ensure dolphin friendly supplies of tuna, was a catalyst for long-lining.

This technique is now extensively used, for instance to catch tuna in most of the world's seas, Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean, and ling and cod along the edge of the continental shelf off Britain.

The global scale of the practice is immense. John Cooper, BirdLife's seabird officer based at the University of Cape Town, estimates that "something like 5,000 million hooks are set worldwide each year. A single tuna long-liner can set a line over 100km long, on which there are 20,000 hooks.

During the setting of the line, the vessel is steaming forward at about five knots and the freshly-baited hooks are paid out into the wake." Faced with a conveyor-belt of bite-sized morsels streaming overboard, albatrosses and other scavenging birds are tempted to take a bite - and get hooked. Hooked birds are pulled underwater and drown. When the line is retrieved hours later, the drowned birds are slung overboard by an indifferent crew.

"It is so sad to see the birds hauled aboard, limp and lifeless, amid the clamour of machinery," says Barry Watkins who has served as an observer on fishery voyages and now works in the Marine and Coastal Management unit of the Western Cape Government.

Serious money is involved. A single 700kg bluefin tuna, a marine Aston Martin able to swim at 50mph, is worth over £35,000. The moment it is aboard it may be bought by a Japanese middleman. Within hours the fish can be transferred by helicopter from the fishing vessel to sushi and sashimi outlets.

The scale of the bird slaughter matches the scale of this industry in which Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are key players. In a recent season, the Patagonian toothfish industry, a fishery rife with illegal vessels, slaughtered an estimated 145,000 birds. Up to 16 per cent of the breeding populations of certain seabirds were killed. Closer to home, Icelandic, Norwegian and Faroese longliners kill at least 50,000 fulmars every year.

Now comes the biological rub. The albatross breeding strategy is supremely slow. A bird begins to breed only when it is nine. A breeding adult might live for another 30 years. It is faithful to the same mate, year after year.

If it is a wandering albatross, one of the largest species with an 11-foot wingspan, it rears a single chick every second year. That is, if things go well. If things go badly and it loses its mate, there may be a three or four-year hiatus before a new mate is found, and breeding resumed. So, albatrosses have minimal capacity to increase their chick output to make good the losses. No wonder populations are in decline.

Three species of albatross have been studied in detail by the British Antarctic Survey at South Georgia. Professor John Croxall of the Survey also wears another hat as chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

"We have seen a population decline of about one per cent each year over the past 25 years," he says. "Fledgelings are only a quarter as likely to survive and join the breeding population as 20 years ago. Because of the shortage of immature birds waiting to join the ranks of the breeders, it would be a decade before the decline halted, even if longline mortality stopped today."

To address this disaster, the British Birdwatching Fair, at Rutland Water this weekend, is raising money for a Save the Albatross campaign, orchestrated by BirdLife International.

This campaign, called Keep the World's Seabirds off the Hook, will have several facets. It will work in the international political arena. In 1999 the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN adopted an international plan to reduce the number of seabirds caught by longliners.

It now falls to individual nations to put forward a plan, by 2001, showing how they will achieve that reduction.

The campaign will also strive to persuade fishermen that it makes sense to adopt measures which reduce the seabird toll, and thus leave more baited hooks available to catch fish. Such measures include setting out lines at night, deploying streamer lines to distract the birds in the vessel's wake, and using special tubes which ensure that baited hooks are set under water.

The public can also play a part by asking questions. Much of the more extreme bird slaughter is caused by illegal vessels, owned, for example, in Spain and flying a Panamanian flag. In the case of Patagonian toothfish (also called Antarctic sea bass or Antarctic icefish), these vessels may be catching ten times as much as the legal vessels that adopt mitigation measures.

Only the catches of the legal vessels receive the seal of approval of a Catch Documentation Scheme, now in force in Britain. Some British supermarkets choose not to sell the fish at all. Others, such as Sainsbury's, insist that all fish come from licensed vessels.

No comparable scheme yet covers tuna. Until it does, it would be no bad thing if customers asked fishmongers whether any fresh tuna on sale were caught in an albatross-friendly manner.


British Birdwatching Fair, Egleton Nature Reserve (west end of) Rutland Water, August 18-20, 9.30am-5.30pm daily; adults £8, children free

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