Seabirds live long lives. Some, like the Laysan Albatross, live as long as you or I.
So much more then is the tragedy when they are unintentionally caught and killed in fishing operations. Scientists estimate roughly 720,000 birds are caught on hooks or tangled in nets each year. This is called seabird bycatch, and it can be devastating to seabird populations. These long-lived species usually have low reproductive rates, and can be very slow to replace any individuals that are lost.
Here at ABC, we've been addressing bycatch of seabirds for many years. But we're not alone: Fishermen don't want to catch seabirds, and consumers around the world seek ways to buy seafood harvested from sustainable fisheries. (This is my chance to put in a plug for sustainable seafood—such as products with the Marine Stewardship Council certification—that you can find in some grocery stores.)
Seabirds are among the most threatened groups of birds, with approximately 29 percent of seabird species listed in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List categories Critically Endangered, Endangered, and Vulnerable. These include the magnificent albatrosses (15 of 21 species are threatened), such as the Waved Albatross, and even the colorful Atlantic Puffin, recently listed as Vulnerable.
To help solve the problem of seabird bycatch in commercial fisheries, ABC recently launched a new website, Seabird Maps and Information for Fisheries. Created in collaboration with The Pennsylvania State University's Center for Environmental Informatics, the new site puts a wealth of information helpful in reducing bycatch right at the fingertips of those who need it most: fishermen, conservationists, and those promoting fishery sustainability.
Featuring a database with profiles of all 378 seabird species, the website offers a unique way to access a wealth of information. Here's how it works: Users draw a map that outlines an area of interest. With one click, they can see a list of seabirds known to occur in that geographic area, along with useful information for assessing the risk posed to seabirds by fishing gear.
Managers of the South Georgia Patagonian Toothfish Longline Fishery, for instance, could quickly see the list of 40 kinds of seabirds that occur in their area, including two species listed by the IUCN as globally Endangered, the Northern Royal Albatross and Gray-headed Albatross. Many of the 40 species have been documented as bycatch in demersal longlines, the type of equipment used in that fishery. Because managers and evaluators can easily obtain this information with the new web tool, they can quickly assess their options for reducing seabird bycatch.
The tool also allows users to review seabirds' legal protected status by different countries, along with their population size and range maps; access reports with information such as diving depth and diet (which may indicate the risk posed by certain kinds of fishing gear); view nations' protected areas, such as Exclusive Economic Zones; and find resources on how to reduce bycatch.
Knowledge of which seabirds they may encounter in their fisheries and how to avoid bycatch is valuable to fishermen and fisheries managers. With so much information available on each species, fisheries managers can make changes to their fishing methods, perhaps using different gear or setting their gear at a different time of day season, which could prevent birds from being injured or killed.
Fishermen using longlines with many baited hooks, for instance, could consider adding streamer lines—brightly colored streamers suspended over the area where hooks are being set—to scare birds away from the longlines. Or, fishermen could set their lines or nets at night, when birds such as albatrosses are less active.
Fishermen and consumers are working toward a common goal: bringing sustainably harvested seafood to the dinner table. We hope this new website, with its wealth of information, can help everyone get there.
Editor's note: The website was developed thanks to generous support from the Walton Family Foundation. To learn more about how the website and mapping tool work, check out this brief video.
David Wiedenfeld is ABC's Senior Conservation Scientist. He received his Ph.D. from Florida State University. His work has focused on bird population ecology and conservation biology. David served for five years as Director of Research at the Sutton Avian Research Center, working primarily on prairie-chickens. He was also Head of the Department of Vertebrate Ecology at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands.