Cape Town - Albatrosses have been hammered by the fishing industry because the big birds, attracted to deep-sea trawlers in their thousands, become entangled in trawl nets, are dragged under the water and drown.
Now a few simple changes on board South African trawlers have reduced albatross death rates by a massive 99 percent.
Birdlife South Africa announced the conservation success story on Tuesday after a seven-year study by its staff and others who sailed on board trawlers to monitor the situation. Their research was published in the journal Animal Conservation on Tuesday.
Bronwyn Maree, leader of the albatross task force for Birdlife South Africa, said they had expected the protection measures would cause a drop in the seabird death rate, but not in such high numbers.
“It was a huge drop, so much so we had to relook at our data to make sure we had got it right. But it was right and it’s a fantastic result.”
The birds are attracted to the deep-sea hake trawlers because the offal – heads and guts – is thrown overboard when the hake are processed on board. Trawlers use large nets, held in the water by thick cables, to capture fish living on the seabed. Thousands of seabirds flock around the vessels, diving to get the offal, and many thousands become entangled in the cables and drown.
The solution was simple: a 30m rope is tied to the back of the trawler and about five to 10 “streamers” are attached to the rope at intervals of about 2m. A road cone at the sea end of the rope provides drag to ensure the line remains taut and keeps it aloft from the vessel. It runs parallel with the trawl cables. The streamers hang down and flutter in the breeze, distracting and confusing the seabirds enough to keep them away from the trawlers’ cables.
The bird-scaring lines, or tori lines, were invented by the Japanese captain of a long-liner fishing vessel.
Maree said that initially the tori lines had been greeted with resistance by the fishing industry, but their use had become mandatory in South Africa.
“Fishermen are traditional and wary of any changes, so there is a bit of resistance in the beginning, but now putting out the tori lines is just one of their daily tasks.”
The reason they became compulsory was because of consumer insistence in Europe that there should not be environmental destructive fishing practices.
Almost all of South Africa’s hake is sold in Europe, where most supermarkets stock the fish only if it is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. That way consumers know the fish comes from stocks that are healthy, that the fishery is monitored and that the environmental impacts are minimised.
Maree said when the hake industry applied for certification by the Marine Stewardship Council in 2004, the council recognised that seabird deaths were a major problem.
“One of the conditions for the industry to keep its certification was that it had to show that every year there was an improvement in this area,” he said.
“The success has been fantastic.”