Celebrating the inaugural World Albatross Day, Bycatch Programme Manager Rory Crawford tells us about the work of the team tasked with protecting these amazing birds

It’s the very first World Albatross Day, so on a ‘Saving Species’ blog from someone that works with the Albatross Task Force (ATF), perhaps you’ll be hoping to read about the careful unhooking of a snagged wandering albatross, watching it soar off into the sunset…or a salt-soaked tale of a colleague coming back from 30 days at sea, having convinced a skipper to start using bird-scaring lines for as long as they fish.

I’m sorry to disappoint you, but this blog might be a lot less exciting. I know that doesn’t sound compelling in the slightest, but stick with me.

The ATF – our international team of seabird-saving instructors – has been running for 15 years now. Thanks to RSPB supporters, we’ve been able to play a major role in some big successes – notably the 99% reduction in albatross bycatch in the South African hake trawl fishery, the introduction of seabird bycatch regulations in all of our original target fisheries (capped off by Chile last year) and supporting the development of innovative new bycatch mitigation measures like the Hookpod, Tamini Tabla and Modified Purse Seine.

These are the things you hear about because they’re exciting, easy to communicate, great stories with lovely images. What you hear less about is what many of our teams are now spending much of their time working on – and that’s training people.

Nahuel Chavez ATF instructor in Argentina building bird-scaring line onboard vessel

Working together

Shiny new regulations and proven bycatch reductions don’t mean much unless they’re implemented and sustained for a long time. To do this, we need more than just the ATF teams to believe that seabird conservation is part of their job – we need the legions of fishing crews, fisheries observers and government inspectors that make up the fisheries management system to believe the same. That takes more than words on the statute book – it’s about building resources and knowledge, and perhaps most importantly, winning hearts and minds.

Mostly we do this through face-to-face workshops – bringing the right folks into a room and talking about bycatch – how to solve it, what to look out for. While historically we’ve focussed training strongly on industry, in this next phase we are working with those that need to collect data on seabird bycatch (the observers) and those that need to examine whether fisheries are following the rules in place (the inspectors) around the use of mitigation measures like bird-scaring lines.

While these might seem like basics, bear in mind that observers and inspectors have a host of other responsibilities – and most of these are more to do with fish than birds. Our challenge is to integrate seabird protection into these duties to ensure laws are being implemented effectively without over-burdening.

Samantha Matjila observing for by-catch from boat, Namibia, 2017 (RSPB images)

Before Covid-19 hit, we had reached hundreds of observers and inspectors, and our own evaluation suggested we were starting to have the desired impact, with improvements in data collection and compliance with seabird-saving measures.

How do we create change in uncertain times?

We’re of course in the same strange limbo as everyone else in the world right now – how to keep making progress when we have to be apart? How to ensure we keep building on what we’ve achieved in the past couple of years?

The ATF teams have of course adapted and found a way - training is moving to online platforms – and while the pandemic exposes weaknesses everywhere from our own work to industry to government – it also creates openings too. In a country with a huge coastline like Chile, for example, we can substantially widen the impact of our small team using online workshops for attendees based across multiple ports.

While training might be less exciting than at-sea work – and online training perhaps even less exciting that in-person training – hopefully I’ve convinced you that this less-swashbuckling approach to conservation is just as vital. It’s about people. And what is conservation without people? Meet some of our albatross-saving heroes on our youtube channel – and if all this talk of bycatch is new to you, check out this video we worked on for Earth Optimism.