Last month we learned about about what life is like for members of the Albatross Task Force in Brazil. This month, we are hopping across to the other side of the Atlantic, to speak to one of dedicated team members in Cape Town, South Africa. 

 My name is Reason Nyengera and as an Albatross Task Force instructor my main job is to work directly with fishermen on the deck of their vessels and engage with them on the issue of seabird bycatch. This is a very exciting task and gives me first-hand experience of the challenges the South African fishery is facing in trying to reduce the conflict between humans and marine wildlife. My aim is to win the hearts and minds of the fishers and explain the problem to them, as well as troubleshooting various mitigation measures at-sea.

The fishers are generally a bit sceptical initially, thinking that I might disrupt their fishing operations rather than trying to help them fish in a more sustainable way. I have primarily been working with five fleets in our local waters: the deep-sea hake trawl fishery, the large pelagic longline fishery (made up of both domestic and joint-venture fleets, targeting tuna and swordfish), the demersal hake longline fishery and the tuna pole fleet.

Bycatch can take several forms, depending on the fishing gear used. In trawl fisheries, as the birds engage in a feeding frenzy behind the vessel, they can be fatally struck by the cables towing the net and dragged under water. In longline fisheries, albatrosses and other seabirds are attracted to baited hooks that target fish such as tuna and hake. As baited hooks take some time to sink to their fishing depth, scavenging seabirds attack the bait, get caught on them and drown.

My goal is to find and help implement mutually beneficial solutions to the problem of seabird bycatch. It is important to note that fishermen generally don’t want to kill seabirds and they have a wealth of practical knowledge about the ocean and fishing techniques. By working with them, we can help create a safe environment for these magnificent birds, using simple techniques to avoid bycatch and advocating for governments to implement seabird bycatch mitigation regulations.

For example, setting longlines at night can significantly reduce seabird bycatch since most seabird species don’t actively forage in the dark. Adding weights to longlines makes baited hooks sink faster, thus reducing the window of opportunity for foraging seabirds to attack them and get caught. Bird-scaring lines are another mitigation measure, designed to cover the area in which baited hooks are available to seabirds and scare them away from this danger zone. Thanks to the work of the Albatross Task Force team, these best practice methods have now been adopted and made mandatory in the South African demersal and pelagic longline fishery permit requirements.

Fishers on a South African demersal longline vessel setting lines at night

Having reached these milestones, I continue engaging with the fishing industry to promote and create awareness of the use of seabird bycatch mitigation measures. Since bird-scaring lines have primarily been designed for use on large vessels, there is an urgent need to adapt them to smaller vessels which have different gear configurations. You can read more about our work to address this issue in my previous blog.

The good news is that our new bird-scaring line design has been successfully included in the 2020-2021 fisheries permit conditions, a legally binding document issued to all fishing vessels by the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and a significant leap forward for the protection of our seabirds from preventable bycatch!

Our next challenge is developing additional methods to help minimise bycatch in the demersal longline fleet. I am currently conducting experiments on the exposure rates of baited hooks using fine-scale time-depth loggers. This information is critical for us to understand which parts of the gear sink slow enough for seabirds to be able to access the bait and become hooked! The map below shows the locations of trips we have been on with the South African demersal longline fleet in the past three years. 

Keep up with the ATF blog to hear more about the work that I and my colleagues in other ATF teams are doing all around the world to help save our seabirds!  

By Reason Nyengera - ATF Instructor, South Africa

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