On my most recent trip aboard a deep-sea trawler, the weather wasn’t as compassionate as the last one! One night my sleeping bag actually flew off me as we rocked and rolled on the sea like a cork in a bucket! You come up with creative and very unusual sleeping positions to steady yourself as the boat rocks about at night. Your body gets used to this, and sometimes it’s almost fun, like a roller-coaster ride.

We left the iconic Table Mountain towering over Cape Town Harbour at 8pm sharp. I can only imagine it’s the most beautiful port in the world. The birds at this time of year are incredible. We were surrounded by hundreds of Cape Gannets flying around the vessel, squabbling and squawking and diving deep for fish offal - they have such enchanting characters. The giant petrels, huge and hideously beautiful, gathered around the offal discards while albatrosses glided around us, circling over many, many seals.

Below: A giant petrel. Photo Chrissie Madden

As a reminder that not only birds suffer interactions with fisheries, we caught three seals on three separate occasions. I saw one deep within the net while it was on the deck waiting to be emptied. A dazed and confused Cape Fur Seal emerged covered in scales and took deep breaths to recover. After resting for several minutes, the seal hopped up and slid back into the sea. They are amazingly resilient animals.

Below: A Cape fur seal emerges from the net. Photo by Chrissie Madden

The Bird Scaring Lines (BSLs) were working well, but one streamer had slipped a couple of meters and needed repairing. I asked the crew to take the line down to fix it. They were thorough and I could see they took pride in making sure the BSL were to specifications. However, as they worked on the BSL, the factory started processing more fish and all of a sudden offal discards started churning out of the factory into the water.

Birds were flying around becoming interested, and I kept looking back to see if the BSL was ready. I conducted the observations, tense and on-edge. And then - just like that - a Yellow-nosed Albatross flew spread winged into the warp cables. It was terrible. I couldn’t do a thing, and the poor bird spun around the cable and was dragged underwater by the downward force of the cables. It happened in a flash.

“No, no, no, no”, that’s all I could say. In desperation I asked to guys to hurry to place the BSL back on immediately, and they came rushing to do as I asked. Within a second of the BSL being deployed, the birds dispersed from the danger zone, and not a single interaction was recorded for the rest of the trawl. This was another sobering testimony of how efficiently these lines work.

I told the skipper what happened. He was upset that his vessel had a mortality, as these are rare occasions now. He said in the future he will deploy the spare BSL during maintenance, and we both learned from this experience.

Since the cooperation of the Deep-Sea Trawl companies and BirdLife South Africa, seabird mortality has decreased by 90% overall, and 99% for albatrosses alone. That is a staggering figure, one that was recently made public in one of the greatest conservation success stories South African seabirds has ever experienced. 

Below: Bird scaring lines have reduced albatross bycatch by 99% in South Africa. Photo by Chrissie Madden