Albatross Task Force

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Albatross Task Force

At sea and on land, we're working hard to keep the world's albatross populations afloat. Find out how.
  • The unshakeable resilience of Chilean fishermen

    Some time ago I wrote about the challenges for small scale fishers in Chile, who are represented by fragile working conditions and confront stormy waters in the ironically named Pacific Ocean.

    I have always tried to highlight the role of small scale fishers as providing an important source of nutrition and tourism for local economies, as well as holding a wealth of knowledge that is relevant for future marine conservation action.

    Because of this, working with them through the Albatross Task Force has given us irreplaceable experiences and led to some innovative solutions toward reducing the interaction between small scale purse seine and gillnet fisheries and seabirds in the Humboldt Current.

    Below: Small-scale purse seine fishermen in Coquimbo, Chile. Photo by Paola Palavecino.


    Together with Japan, Chile is one of the most seismic countries in the world, and has been affected by 10 earthquakes in the past two years, half of which have caused tsunamis. Of course these events are most closely felt by the coastal communities and especially the small scale fishing fleets.

    On the 16th September a magnitude 8.3 earthquake hit the central north coast of Chile around Illapel, 189 km to the south of the bay of Coquimbo (29 degrees south). A total of 15 people tragically lost their lives, with 4.5 m waves created by the earthquake crashing through port installations and infrastructure.

    The small scale fishers of the region lost some 400 boats to the tsunami, but despite this massive impact were the first to find the way to get to sea straight away to rescue survivors and search for people who were swept away by the waves.

    Further south, in the coastal town of Coronel, where the community was still recovering from the tsunami of 2010 the locals gathered food and supplies to send to the communities in the north.

    While these coastal towns start to rebuild through support from volunteers and the local authorities, it is necessary to remember the smaller coastal villages and localities that are further removed from the urban centres. A total of 23 of these small ports were affected by the tsunami around Coquimbo.

    As observers of the marine environment, we ought to recognise the capacity of the fishing communities to endure these incredible natural disasters and return to the ocean to which they belong.        

    The same ocean supports the seabirds, which serve as important indicators of marine resources for the fishers. After working together, the communities recognise the impacts that they can have on the ocean ecosystem, as well as the impacts the ocean can have on them. Through this work we are finding solutions to incidental seabird bycatch and developing alternative methods that can be used as mitigation measures for small scale fleets.

    For all these reasons, we hope with all our hearts that they are able to return to sea as soon as possible, to rebuild their lives after this most recent challenge. For our part, we will continue working with them, counting on their unshakable resolve, to find and develop measures that prevent the incidental capture of seabirds.

    For the fishers, their families and all the small coastal communities, we wish you a swift recovery and send you strength lads!  

  • Proud to Be a Fisherman

    My last trip was aboard a vessel that prides itself on doing everything possible to reduce seabird bycatch ~ the FV Harvest Nandi. I was highly impressed with the attitudes and knowledge of the entire crew – from the skipper to the factory men, deckhands to engineers – they were all conscious about seabirds and the importance of preventing endangered species’ extinctions. I think this stems from direct and constant involvement of BirdLife South Africa with the industry, right down to the sea-going staff and particularly this vessel, as we have used it as a boat for experiments.

    Between my observations, I catch up with the crew in the Mess room and eat fresh fish. “How are your birds doing?” they ask, and how it’s possible to count them all – there are hundreds! It’s easy “one, two, three…one hundred!” We joke and after a few days they get more comfortable with me. The interactions with the people on the boats are great. One day the first mate, with a huge grin, asked “Chrissie, how many bird species do you see?”  I counted 11, and the mate jumped up, mockingly pointed to the Boson and laughed out loud “he thinks there’s only 4!” It’s true, there are 4 main groups (albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, skuas), but several species. These moments are great to show the crew how to identify a black-browed albatross vs. a shy albatross, and once they feel more comfortable, they come with many questions about the birds. It’s a great grassroots learning platform.

    Below: Preparing to take species abundance counts as seabirds follow the trawler. Image Chrissie Madden

    In the Mess Room, I spoke to the Chief Engineer, “Dulla”. “Before BirdLife came and spoke to us, we weren’t concerned about the birds. Hulle is net voels, they are just birds. But now we have been educated and we are aware of them. This is South Africa’s wildlife, and each animal has its protector. You can’t just shoot a rhino, it has its protector. All wildlife in South Africa has a protector.” Dulla showed deep understanding of the ethos of conservation and went on to describe how he and his crew are contributing towards conserving seabirds. “The Tori Lines are easy and we always use the Rory Lines*, and we see it works. If the Rory Line is up [i.e. not deployed], some birds go to the stern.  But the Rory Line doesn’t hurt the birds, it’s not heavy so the straps don’t push the birds down. Before the Tori Lines, a bird would get stuck in the net or cable, and there was nothing you can do about it. But now this doesn’t happen anymore.” I was touched. This highlighted the importance of long-term relationships and personal engagements with the very people who are in charge of responsible fishing practices. I could see the crew were fond of BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force, they understood our mandate, that education and awareness is empowering, and they were proud to be fishermen.

    Below: The Rory Line is an additional mitigation measure attached to the side of the vessel, near the scupper where discards enter the water. The use of these are voluntary. Image Chrissie Madden.

  • Seabird and turtle bycatch in northern Chile

    Mummified remains in the Atacama Desert suggest the first Andean tribes ventured closer to the coast some 7,000 BC, attracted by the plentiful and accessible marine resources. Today, the most northerly city in Chile is still an important fishing port, with numerous purse seine and gillnet vessels active all year, as well as other coastal ventures that include seaweed and shell fish gathering, plus a growing marine tourism industry.   

    Through the work of the Albatross Task Force we have been gathering as well, not shell fish but important data on vulnerable species interactions with the main fisheries. One of the lesser understood fisheries here is the gillnet fleet, which uses 40 to 200 metre-long monofilament nets which are set in around 15 m deep water. Up to eleven nets are deployed by each 10 m wooden vessel every day, powered by a small outboard engine.  

    Below: Juan-Carlos Gonzalez aboard a gillnet vessel off the coast of Arica, Chile. Photo: JC Gonzalez

    The coastal waters of Arica are also important foraging grounds for green turtles Chelonia Mydas, which are resident off the coast all year round. During our monitoring of the fisheries we have discovered cases of incidental bycatch of these turtles. The individuals observed caught were released alive, but this may not always be the case. Unfortunately we also recorded seabird bycatch, and due to their limited dive ability the seabirds are normally found dead during the haul.

    Below: A green turtle caught in gillnet fishing gear is left to rest before being released. Photo: JC Gonzalez

    Monitoring fisheries is the first step toward understanding the level of not only seabird bycatch, but also other vulnerable species like turtles and dolphins. By doing so we can establish what factors contribute to the bycatch events and use this information to develop strategies with the industry to avoid sensitive times and areas or help modify the gear and operation to prevent the bycatch. The next steps are to trial the proposed mitigation measures to determine what solutions can be introduced in these fisheries to enable long-established fishing traditions to continue without endangering vulnerable species.