Friday, 24 February 2012

Seabirds and fishing – challenges

Trevor Hughes (left), long time leader of the Antarctic Policy Unit
 welcomes me ashore at Franklin Island.

Yesterday our San Aotea II finally met up with the Spirit of Enderby and the Our Far South team at Franklin Island. I have now finally joined them (swapped by San Aotea II for half-a-dozen tins of instant coffee and 5 kilos of sugar; a pretty fair trade they thought).  San Aotea II then headed for home, having been away since November 28th of   last year.  For me, I had the added bonus of finally stepping foot on Antarctica as the team went ashore at Franklin Island – in all the years I have worked here that had never been possible as special permits are required and environmental protection is paramount to protect the birds, seals, and other living things.  Which leads us into the subject of my next two blogs – seabirds and fishing.

South Polar skuas playing on our vessel.
A couple of weeks ago, fishing north of the Ross barrier we had an escort of South Polar skuas circling about the boat.  Over several hours I watched one of these birds make numerous attempts to land on the foredeck.  After finally realising the futility of trying to land on the rail (made of pipe) with webbed feet the bird managed to set down on the deck – not gracefully but successfully.  Having succeeded in this it looked pretty happy, warming its underside on the heated deck and settling in.  This first arrival was followed by a second bird – possibly its mate going through the same procedure until also finally alighting alongside the first.  There was a line with a round ‘monkey’s fist’ (knot) on the end attached to one of the mooring ropes, and this pair of skuas spent a lot of time and energy trying to make off with it. They were tugging and hauling vigorously together, one way or the other for hours, but failing as it was obviously firmly attached.  They might have felt that they had found the ultimate penguin egg.  We had a lot of pleasure watching their antics.  They eventually departed bereft of the prize. Unfortunately not all interactions between seabirds and fishing vessels end as well.

A few facts to start – according to my reading there are about 8600 species of birds of which only 359 species are seabirds.  Of these 359 species, 84 (or nearly a quarter) breed about New Zealand and our off-shore Islands.  Of those 84, 35 species are endemic to the New Zealand region alone.

Although some of these New Zealand seabirds stay within New Zealand waters many travel much more widely – as far as the North Pacific and South Atlantic, returning to New Zealand waters to breed.

Adelie penguin in the surf at Franklin Island.
Without doubt seabird numbers worldwide are under threat. The reasons for this are many: introduced and natural predators, loss of habitat, plastic debris - either harming them through ingestion or entanglement, oil spills or pollution, climate change, and, of importance to us - fishing.  The fishing industry has little or no control over many of these threats but it can make a big difference by reducing or removing the effects of fishing on these seabird populations. This is a problem we must own and solve.

What is the problem?  Simply the fact that birds are attracted to boats as a ready source of food. Bait, fish waste, discarded fish, and lost fish are an easy meal – fast food on the waves.

With ongoing research documenting the threats and continuing demise of seabird populations, answers and solutions are required of the fishing industry world-wide.  New Zealand has been at the forefront of this response. A major player in New Zealand is Southern Seabird Solutions, bringing together government, fishing industry, science, and environmental groups with the common aim of promoting fishing practices that avoid the incidental capture and mortality of seabirds.   I will detail specific methods used aboard our longline vessels in a later blog but in general such methods either scare birds away from dangerous areas around a vessel, remove the attractant food, minimise the time baits are available to birds, or time fishing activities when seabird numbers are low, absent or when their vision is reduced, such as at night.

SouthernSeabird Solutions is a charitable trust and brings together industry, government, and environmental groups to share expertise in addressing this issue and sharing solutions. New Zealand Skipper, John Bennett, the then skipper of San Aotea II was the first recipient of the Golden Albatross Award at the International Fishers Forum held in Hawaii in 2002 for his commitment to eliminate capture of seabirds and his innovation in this regard.

When New Zealand vessels started working in the Ross Sea this knowledge and our methods were transferred into the fishery with many of the innovations and measures used by our vessels now widely incorporated into CCAMLR Conservation measures for not only the Ross Sea region but other exploratory fisheries.  In the fourteen years that New Zealand vessels have fished in the Ross Sea no seabirds have been killed as a result of fishing operations, a record we are proud of.

Next blog Seabirds and fishing – solutions.