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Where seabirds tangle with fishers
by Fiona Proffitt

Science Now - Biological research Information Center

The first study to compile global tracking data for 19 species of albatross and petrel identifies several regions where these extraordinary, and endangered, ocean travellers run the risk of getting hooked by longline fishers.

Albatrosses and petrels spend much of their lives skimming the high seas, with some species migrating thousands of kilometres--a wandering habit that exposes these birds to threats from fisheries. Longlines are estimated to accidentally hook and drown more than 100,000 albatrosses annually and threaten 19 of the 21 species with extinction. Pirate fishing for lucrative species such as Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean is a particular problem, accounting for perhaps a third of deaths. But convincing regional fisheries managers that longlining poses a problem in their patch has been "almost impossible," says John Croxall, a seabird biologist with the British Antarctic Survey and editor of the report.

To tackle this obstacle, BirdLife International--a global alliance of bird conservation organizations, headquartered in Cambridge, U.K.--gathered data from tracking studies of 16 albatross and three petrel species. Their report, released 9 November at the inaugural meeting of delegates to the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels in Hobart, Australia, includes maps of seabird distributions assembled by applying sophisticated computing tools to tracking data collected in previous studies.
The report has shed some new light on the biology and behaviour of these enigmatic birds, such as the observation that Indian Ocean populations of wandering albatrosses move less than their Atlantic Ocean counterparts. But the main insight came from overlaying the bird-distribution data with information on longline fisheries to identify the key danger zones. These included the waters around New Zealand and southeast Australia, the southwest Indian Ocean, South Atlantic, and North Pacific.

Bob Furness, a seabird biologist at the University of Glasgow, U.K., says the data "could provide strong evidence for the need to improve measures that reduce the seabird bycatch or constrain certain fisheries.” Mark Tasker, head of marine advice at the U.K. government's Joint Nature Conservation Committee in Peterborough, is equally enthusiastic about the report's contribution to conservation efforts. "The potential is massive," he says, although he adds that more data are needed on non-breeding birds, which are most at risk because they spend much of their time at sea.

Related sites

Albatross fact sheets

BirdLife International's Save the Albatross Campaign

Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels

Food and Agriculture Organization's Seabird Initiative