One Simple Change Cut Accidental Albatross and Seabird Deaths by 98%: ‘Absolutely amazing’

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An international task force of conservationists have proved that a remarkably simple method of deterring seabirds can save tens of thousands from accidental death.

A recent study published about the Namibian fishery industry determined there was a 98% reduction in albatross and other seabird deaths after laws were passed requiring that fishermen attach colored streamers to the back of their boats, which deterred the birds from pilfering longline fishing nets.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and BirdLife International’s Albatross Task Force (ATF) came together to help prevent endangered species like albatross from going extinct due to bycatch, a fishing term that describes animals caught but not targeted.

Albatrosses are amazing birds, capable of traveling thousands of miles across oceans without stopping—all while living into their sixties. Some species mate for life, returning to the same, often uninhabited islands dozens of times to raise young. While many people imagine eagles and condors as the largest birds on Earth, both the title of largest bird, and largest wingspan, belong to albatrosses—to the great albatross and the wandering albatross respectively.

In Namibia, the hake trawl and long-line fisheries were found to kill a staggering 22,000 to 30,000 birds a year, including the endangered Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, due to the birds’ tendencies to get snagged on the long-line hooks, or colliding with the steel cables that tug the trawl nets along.

“It’s hard to envisage so many birds being killed in individual fisheries on an annual basis, not least for the fishers themselves who see lots of birds gathering behind their boats and perhaps might only bring up 1 or 2 in a haul,” Rory Crawford, Bycatch Program Manager at the RSPB, told Ecomagazine.

“But the cumulative effect for albatrosses in particular has been devastating – 15 of 22 species are threatened with extinction. Mercifully, this is a problem for which there are simple and elegant solutions.”

These solutions are known as “bird-scaring lines.” A colorful pole mounted on the stern of a fishing trawler strings along colorful ropes, which either through movement or the color scheme—scientists aren’t yet certain—act like the marine equivalent of a scarecrow.

As the birds, which can include not only albatrosses but also petrels, approach the fishing vessel with the idea of snatching an easy meal of either fish or bait hanging off the long fishing lines, the bird-scaring lines cause them to take a second guess.

“It’s part of the brightness and then the motion of it, it’s been very very effective around the world, other nations have reported success other than Namibia,” Titus Shaanika, a Namibian conservationist and co-author of the study, told the BBC.

The bird scaring lines were imposed by law, but according to Shaanika, it wasn’t a major challenge to approach hake fishermen and convince them of the value of the birds, and why the simple solution was worth the small investment of time and energy.

These other successes include in South America, and South Africa, a good thing since seabirds are one of the most vulnerable groups of animals.