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Sailing on the whisper of large wings

Sean Zintl

Mail & Guardian Online

27th January 2004

Dead wanderer: Albatross killed by one of the longline
fishing hooks that snag hundreds of seabirds every day.

(Photograph: Samantha Petersen)

Of all birds, the albatross is perhaps the most enigmatic – mystical even. Seafarers’ lore holds that they are the souls of departed sea captains wandering forever solitary across the wide expanse of the oceans. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Samuel Taylor Coleridge describes the dark fate that befalls a seaman foolhardy enough to kill one.

Yet, alarmingly, these large birds are dying in their thousands every year. Extinction is imminent for many species of albatross. The Amsterdam albatross, named after Amsterdam Island in the Southern Indian Ocean, is about to disappear – there are only 80 individuals left in the world. Seventeen other species are critically endangered.

Incredibly, many of the birds are needlessly killed and huge numbers could easily be saved by implementing several simple measures. By far the biggest killers are longline fishing hooks that snag hundreds of sea birds every day and drag them to their death in the depths of the ocean.

One fishing trawler in New Zealand recently reported catching 300 birds in a single day. It is estimated that at least 100 000 albatrosses are killed by fishing lines around world every year. And yet, with a few simple precautions, virtually all these deaths could be avoided.

In an attempt to highlight the dire plight of albatrosses as well as solutions, veteran seafarer and adventurer John Ridgway has embarked on a year-long cruise across the oceans of the southern hemisphere. He is following the migration routes of these long-distance fliers – some sail up to 2 400km at a stretch before returning to land – and hopes to raise awareness of these majestic creatures, and the measures that can be taken to save them.

When I met the crusty seaman in October, he had just arrived in Cape Town after a five-week long trip from Scotland. He and his crew were busy replenishing supplies on board his trusty English Rose VI – the 57-foot ketch that was going to carry him and his crew, including his wife, Marie Christine, around the globe.

Ridgway has spent many years at sea, in one way or another (he rowed across the North Atlantic in 1966) and has made numerous voyages across the southern and northern oceans, where he has encountered many different species of albatross.

“I have spent many months at sea and have often been graced with the presence of these extraordinary birds sailing overhead,” he said. “Sadly, many of these majestic creatures are being wantonly killed every year. I cannot just sit idly by while the slaughter continues.

“My volunteer crew, all experts in their fields, are giving up to a year of their lives to help me. This is the very least we can do. It may be the last chance for the albatross.”

On the first leg of their voyage, they sailed from Cape Town to Melbourne. The journey was due to take them seven weeks and down into frigid polar waters. Here they entered the domain of the wandering albatross – the world’s largest, with a wingspan of 3,5m. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most aggressive feeders and most at risk from the dangers posed by longline fishing.

Longline fishing is a huge industry that became prevalent during the 1980s. This method of fishing involves baiting thousands of hooks and trailing them – on a long line – behind fishing boats. Seabirds scavenging behind the boats try to eat the bait from the hooks. The birds swallow the hooks and are dragged underwater and drowned.

Experts estimate that more than 300 000 seabirds of all kinds are killed every year by these long lines. The latest figures from Birdlife International indicate that all 21 species of albatross are now threatened.

The measures that can be taken to prevent these deaths involve keeping the hooks out of the birds’ reach. One of the most successful involves the use of a setting tube that forces the hooks deep underwater as they leave the boat. Operating on a similar principle, the hooks can also be weighted, causing them to sink more rapidly.

Another, less effective method involves flying long fluttering streamers behind the boats to scare the birds off – much like scarecrows in a field. Other measures include using thawed (instead of frozen) bait, as this sinks more rapidly; dying the bait blue (apparently this puts the albatrosses off); and releasing the hooks at night, when the birds are less likely to be feeding.

While these measures are not very costly, very few boats bother to implement them. The main reason is that few countries are bound by any legislation that protects the albatross.

One of the principal pieces of legislation to protect the birds is the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), drafted at the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species in 2001. This agreement requires signatory states to take specific measures to reduce seabird fatalities from longlining.

While the agreement has been signed by 11 countries, including the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Ukraine, it has only been ratified by four countries – Australia, New Zealand, Ecuador and South Africa. A minimum of five ratifications are required for the agreement to enter into force and become legally binding. Other countries with large fishing operations, such as Argentina, China, Japan, South Korea and the United States, have not yet signed the agreement.

Besides the lack of specific legislation to protect seabirds, there are the “pirate” fishing fleets registered in countries that are not bound by international regulations – such as Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Cambodia, Honduras, Liberia, Malta, Mauritius, Panama and Vanuatu. These fleets are almost completely unregulated and engage in illegal fishing practices.

There are at least 1 000 large-scale pirate fishing vessels registered under flags of convenience. The majority are owned by companies based in Taiwan, Spain, Belize, Panama, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and China.

The pirates are the boats most likely to engage in longline fishing for the lucrative southern bluefin tuna and Patagonian toothfish. They frequently set lines up to 130km long. Attached to the lines are millions of baited hooks. These boats operate with total disregard for the number of seabirds they kill.

The Australian and South African governments recently co-operated in the high-profile seizure of a Uruguayan- registered ship, Viarsa, after it was suspected of illegal fishing. When it was captured after a three-week chase across the seas, 85 tonnes of Patagonian toothfish worth almost $1-billion were found onboard. Who knows how many albatrosses were sacrificed during this catch.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which supports the migratory species convention, said recently: “Over the past decade or so, the threats to albatrosses and other seabirds from longliners has become an increasing source of concern. Clearly, we are dealing with another example of unsustainable fishing practices which must be tackled as a matter of urgency.”

The illegal fishing industry is large and difficult to police. Fish are sometimes transferred at sea to vessels to be landed in coastal states, for example Mauritius, that are not bound by controls. Many developing nations also lack the resources to police their waters effectively and prevent illegal vessels from operating.

On his voyage, Ridgway will be on the lookout for pirate fishing boats and signs of illegal fishing. He is adamant that the problem of longline fishing can be overcome. “All it requires is a captain with the will to do so, on every boat.”

To achieve this, he is urging all concerned bodies to press their governments to ratify the agreement on the conservation of albatrosses and petrels. Once this is achieved, it will be possible to regulate the industry, he maintains.

Organisations such as Birdlife International are recommending that observers supervise the capture, packing and sealing of legally caught fish, so that they can issue certificates stating that catches are “albatross-friendly”.

Ridgway hopes his voyage will publicise the plight of albatrosses around the globe, and help bring about urgent measures to protect them. Because, he said, “If these great birds disappear from the face of the Earth, we can’t be far behind.”