Let’s not forget the seabirds on World Oceans Day!

(c)Marguerite Tarzia_Lithuania
World Oceans Day is a time to reflect on protecting the marine environment. (c) Marguerite Tarzia

Today marks World Oceans Day. The day we celebrate the beauty, the life and the amazing gift that is our oceans.

But these wonderful oceans, which do everything from mitigating climate change and regulating the earth’s temperature to providing food and other resources for marine species and humans, are under threat. So today we should think about how we can change human activities so that they have as little impact as possible on the marine environment. We need to think about oil pollution, eutrophication, plastic pollution, overfishing, mineral extraction and bycatch of several marine animals, all caused by human activities.

We’d like to focus on one component of the oceans that we see in the sky above them – seabirds. They range from the clumsy Atlantic Puffin and the Common Seagull at our ports, to the penguins who spend most of their time swimming in water and the majestic albatrosses – one of the longest living birds in the world.

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Gran Sol may have ‘plenty of fish in the sea’, but its seabirds are declining

A fisher trying to free a live Great Shearwater from a long line in Gran Sol. The fishers agreed to turn off the lights on deck at night, which reduced bycatch 10 fold. Photo: Alvaro Barros/SEO
A fisher trying to free a live Great Shearwater from a long line in Gran Sol. The fishers agreed to turn off the lights on deck at night, which reduced bycatch 10 fold. Photo: Alvaro Barros/SEO

Seabirds are among the most threatened groups of birds in the world. Seabird bycatch (the accidental killing of birds as they are caught during fishing) is regarded as one of the major threats for many seabird species, particularly petrels, albatrosses and shearwaters. Investigating the phenomenon and finding solutions is one of BirdLife International’s priorities.

Since the recognition of the problem in the late 1980s, research and conservation action have been focused on longline fishing fleets operating in the southern oceans, where many albatross species were experiencing sharp declines (BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force [ATF] was created to help deal with this).

However, there’s increasing evidence that the problem extends to other regions as well, including Europe, and involves several types of gear. The European Commission finally recognised the problem in 2012 with the publication of the EU Action Plan for reducing incidental catches of seabirds in fishing gears, and in 2014, BirdLife International created the Seabird Task Force (STF, with funding from Fondation Segré) to find ways to prevent bycatch, for now focused on two problem areas, namely the Baltic and Mediterranean seas.

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Seabirds and fishing gear – a conundrum

Cory’s Shearwaters following a fishing boat © Pep Arcos

Every day across the world, fisher men and women are out at sea, along coasts or far offshore in search of a good fish catch. Seabirds are irresistibly drawn to their boats, the bait, and the promise of a tasty and easily caught meal. But getting too close to fishing gear is dangerous, and unsuspecting seabirds get accidentally hooked or entangled, and then drown.

Unintentional deaths like this are called ‘seabird bycatch’, and it kills hundreds of thousands of seabirds each year. It’s also costly for the fishing industry as a hooked bird is an expensive missed chance to catch a fish.

The scale of this problem is enormous, yet for some years we have had very simple ways to prevent seabirds from being caught in the first place. Over the last decade, BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force has been on a mission in fisheries around the world; collaborating with fisher communities to create solutions to prevent seabird bycatch.

So far, they’ve achieved impressive reductions in numbers killed in southern Africa and South America. But despite their proven success, it has been a long and steep journey to introduce the same programme in Europe.

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