Precedent-Setting Proposed Permit May Offer New Protections for Hawaiian Seabirds

Black-footed Albatross Pair by
Black-footed Albatross Pair by

(Washington, D.C., January 10, 2012) Yesterday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a proposal to regulate the killing of seabirds by vessels in the Hawaiian swordfish fishery. The action is important because it marks the first time the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), America’s foremost law protecting migratory bird species, has been invoked to protect seabirds in federal waters.

Previously, only the Endangered Species Act had been used to prevent seabird deaths caused by commercial longline fishing, and it has been only to the endangered Short-tailed Albatross. The MBTA had not historically been applied to this fishery because National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) had asserted that it is out of the range covered by the MBTA.

A draft Environmental Assessment (EA) was published by FWS in the Federal Register today, seeking public comment (

“This action sets a legal precedent for limiting seabird bycatch in fisheries, so it is important to get it right. If this permit does what it should, and protects the birds that are impacted by longlines, then it is a welcome step in the right direction,” said Dr. Jessica Hardesty-Norris, Seabird Program Director for ABC. “ABC will be reviewing the proposed permit and will support alternatives that will limit and/or reduce incidental mortality, and seek just compensation for unavoidable seabird mortality if necessary.”

If the NMFS-requested permit goes forward, NMFS will examine the risk that the fishery poses to all seabirds and develop ways for further reducing seabird bycatch. The regulators are particularly concerned about the high incidence of injured birds in the fishery.

This fishery targets swordfish and operates on the high seas and within U.S. waters. The migratory birds incidentally taken in the fishery are predominantly Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses. The endangered Short-tailed Albatross occurs in the area where the fishery operates and has been observed from Hawai‘i-based longline fishing vessels, but no take of this species has been reported. Pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, FWS has been tracking the impacts of this fishery on the Short-tailed Albatross. The new Draft Environmental Assessment (DEA) addresses species protected under the MBTA and analyzes the alternatives of a potential MBTA take permit.

The purpose of an MBTA take permit is not to authorize the unlimited killing of migratory birds or to enable an applicant to operate with impunity. Rather it serves to place restrictions on an applicant and allow it to continue its activities (with a limited number of incidental bird kills) only if it abides by the conditions set forth in the permit. In the case of longline fishing, these conditions may include technical modifications to fishing gear that can reduce bird deaths, restrictions on when boats can set lines, and protocols for saving birds that may become snagged on fishing hooks. Further, the permit process could provide a mechanism for compensation for any killed birds, which would go to improving conservation efforts for impacted species.

“We know these industrial fishing operations accidentally kill seabirds, but the proposed permit would mean that the bycatch is regulated,” Hardesty Norris said. “ABC supports the use of all appropriate techniques to prevent seabird mortality, including a permitting system that would control and compensate for unavoidable bycatch. Such a system would review fisheries, put measures in place to avoid bycatch in those fisheries, set limits on take, and potentially establish compensation (mitigation) for unavoidable take,” Hardesty-Norris said.

ABC has campaigned to end seabird deaths from longlining in U.S. fisheries since the mid-90s. Thousands of miles of fishing lines, carrying hundreds of millions of hooks, are set by longliners throughout the world’s oceans each year. Albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, and fulmars are killed when they become attracted to the bait attached to the hooks, and either swallow the hooks or become snagged and pulled under the sea to drown. For many years, ABC campaigned to end seabird deaths from longlining in U.S. fisheries with significant success. Following ABC’s report Sudden Death on the High Seas – Longline Fishing: A Global Catastrophe for Seabirds, and subsequent advocacy efforts, seabird deaths in Hawai‘i and Alaska are down significantly. However, a stark reminder of the threat resurfaced recently when an endangered Short-tailed Albatross was killed by a longliner off the coast of Oregon and another was killed in Alaskan waters.

American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit membership organization whose mission is to conserve native birds and their habitats throughout the Americas. ABC acts by safeguarding the rarest species, conserving and restoring habitats, and reducing threats, while building capacity in the bird conservation movement.

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