We have all marvelled at the beauty of albatross through #AlbatrossStories, detailing the lives of albatross from the island of South Georgia. However, the hard reality is that the birds we have been following stand a high chance of one day accidentally being killed by a fishing boat. Seabird bycatch is a key driver of the decline in seabird numbers globally. In fact, 15/22 albatross species are now threatened with extinction.
The Albatross Task Force (ATF) was created by the RSPB and BirdLife International to tackle this growing issue of seabird bycatch. Formed of a multi-national team of seabird bycatch experts, the ATF works directly on fishing boats with fishers to train them to use simple bycatch mitigation measures which prevent the needless deaths of seabirds. The team also works with governments and industry to bring in mandatory mitigation techniques which drastically cut the number of birds dying at sea. The ATF aims to reduce seabird bycatch by 80% in the ten most lethal fisheries, and they have already achieved some impressive results; since the ATF began work in South Africa in 2006, they have cut albatross bycatch by 99% in the trawl fishery!
We interviewed Albatross Task Force instructor, Nahuel Chavez, who works with fisheries in Argentina, to find out what life is like as a member of the ATF. Albatross from South Georgia spend time foraging off the coast of Argentina when they are away from the island, and so are at risk of being caught as bycatch. It is estimated that around 13,500 Black-browed Albatross are killed in the Argentinian trawl fleets every year. Chavez and his team are working to change that…
Nahuel Chavez on board a fishing vessel, demonstrating bird scaring lines.
How did you become an Albatross Task Force instructor (ATF)?
I met Leo Tamini (the Argentina ATF team leader) in 2007 when I participated in a fishery observer training course in Mar del Plata, Argentina where I was studying Biology. In 2008 I became a fisheries observer and on my third trip I went aboard a longliner where I had to record albatross mortality and take pictures. Not long after that trip Leo asked if I would like to become part of Aves Argentinas (the BirdLife partner in Argentina) and the ATF. To start with I had a part-time contract and did my first ATF trip in October 2009. When I started as an observer and saw the seabirds around the boat I couldn’t tell the difference between the species. I said “They are all the same!”
Would you say that going on the longliner and witnessing the bycatch was what made you want to work with the ATF?
Yes definitely. The first time I went on a longliner and saw the huge mortality of albatross I knew we had to do something to stop it. I saw on average 40 albatrosses an hour being killed. It was terrible to see.
Chavez holding a victim of bycatch.
What does your role as an ATF instructor involve?
Today I go onboard boats in the trawl fleet out of the port of Mar del Plata and teach fishers about mitigation measures, including bird scaring lines. I love working with the fishers to change their ideas and increase the use of bird-scaring lines to save albatross.
What is the hardest part of your job?
When I’m at sea I miss my wife and baby daughter. The hardest times are when things happen on land and you can’t do anything. In 2015 when I got back from a trip I found out my father was seriously ill. Luckily now he is well but it’s tough to be away from family when they need you.
At sea the hardest part is the inherent danger of being on a boat out in the open ocean, the wild climate, and the storms. I always have one or two days during the trip when I am in a bad mood and I just want to be alone, which is impossible on a ship! I try to be more patient and relaxed on these days.
Albatross gathering at the back of a fishing boat.
What has been the biggest success to date for the ATF in Argentina?
After several years work lobbying the fishing authorities of our country, in May 2018 regulations requiring the mandatory use of bird-scaring lines on freezer trawlers came into force. We've found that around 40% of trawlers are now using bird-scaring lines a year after the regulations came into force, so there is still work to do before all the boats are no longer killing albatross.
Bird scaring lines which help to mitigate against bycatch by protecting birds from colliding with fishing cables.
What does the regulation for seabirds mean?
It is a very big step because, it means after all the efforts of the ATF and seabird research teams in Argentina we are now beginning to see some positive outcomes for albatross. We hope that regulation will help to improve the conservation status of seabirds but we understand that actions are needed in a number of areas (stopping accidental bycatch, removing introduced predators, strategic management of discards from vessels, and tracking work to understand areas important for birds) are necessary for these birds to continue to exist.
What do you do when you aren’t sailing the oceans saving albatross?
I love running. I practice martial arts; I’m a black belt in karate and teach students. I love spending time with my wife, daughter and friends at home, and I love sharks! My thesis at university was on the reproductive biology of coastal sharks in Argentina.
Although the plight of the albatross can sometimes seem bleak, it is heartening to know that these wonderful birds have such brilliant conservationists on their side, helping to make the future of these birds more certain.
To hear more about the albatrosses that Nahuel is working to save follow #AlbatrossStories on Instagram.
Interview conducted by Stephanie Prince
Photos by Nahuel Chavez and Leo Tamini
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