Following Stuart Housden's series of blogs in the run up to BirdFair, Steph Winnard of the RSPB/Birdlife Marine team reports back on the work carried out by the Albatross Task Force, since the receipt of BirdFair funding seventeen years ago.


Much has happened in the birding world since the BirdFair focussed its efforts on raising money for Global Seabirds.  In 2000, vast numbers of seabirds were dying in fisheries around the globe, including 100,000 albatrosses on longlines every year- that’s one every 5 minutes!  With the help of the funds raised from that year's BirdFair we were able to kick-start action to reduce this threat. Since then huge progress has been made to save the albatross, and we are striving to save even more.

Image courtesy of Bokamoso Lebepe

The Albatross Task Force (ATF) was formed as a partnership between RSPB and BirdLife International to bridge the gap between knowledge that already existed about how to stop birds being killed (using certain cheap and cheerful techniques) and getting these techniques on to boats and fishers using them. Funding was desperately needed to employ and train people who could go onto fishing vessels and show fishers the simple methods available to drastically reduce seabird deaths. These measures include; setting lines at night when birds are less active, adding weight to the line so it sinks faster out of reach of hungry birds, and using bird-scaring lines which are brightly coloured streamers towed behind the vessel that scare birds away from danger areas. From humble beginnings of employing just one team in South Africa, to the current work programme across seven priority countries in South America and southern Africa, the ATF has driven efforts to reduce bycatch in longline and trawl fisheries.

Image courtesy of Ruben Dellacasa

Ten fisheries were selected as the highest priority fleets for albatross, and since then we have concentrated on reducing seabird bycatch in these fisheries. One of the first tasks was to conduct experiments to test the techniques in each fleet, and make any adjustments depending on the vessel design and the fishing gear used, as well as environmental conditions. For example in Argentina we had to develop a towed device called a “Tamini tabla”, that stops bird-scaring lines from being blown sideways by the strong cross-winds found in that part of the world and entangling in the fishing gear. Lucky for us the ATF team is innovative and passionate about what they do, and time and time again come up with solutions to problems that initially seem insurmountable.

Image courtesy of LeoTamini

In South Africa in 2006 we calculated that over 9,000 birds were being killed every year by the Hake trawl fishery. Amazingly by 2013 we showed that albatross deaths had been reduced by an astounding 99% by using bird-scaring lines. By the end of 2017 we hope to show that the trawl and longline fleet in Namibia (previously some of the worst fleets globally) have also achieved significant reductions in deaths, following the introduction of legislation to protect seabirds, and a campaign to provide all of the vessels with bird-scaring lines, made by a local community group.

These successes are not easy to achieve and require a huge amount of effort. Firstly none of the work would be possible without getting the fishers and local communities onboard. ATF instructors visit the ports day after day to talk with the fishers, hold workshops and training events, and visit schools to educate the younger generation about how we can save seabirds and why it’s important that we should.

Once you’ve gained the respect and trust of the fishing industry you then need to test the measures scientifically to prove that they reduce bycatch. In all of our fisheries we showed that bird deaths could be reduced by at least 80%. Implementation is paramount in reducing deaths over the long run, so the ATF instructors don’t only have to be sailors, scientists, teachers, and inventors but they also have to be advocates and lobbyists to encourage governments to require the use of these measures by law.  9 out of the 10 fisheries now have legislation to protect seabirds, which is testament to the dedication and tenacity of the teams.

Image courtesy of Fabiano Pepe

The final step is to make sure that the fishers are complying with the law, and in some countries this is easier than others. Scientific observers are employed in some places to monitor fishing activities on vessels. They are mainly concerned with the fish being caught, but after attending an ATF seabird ID training course, they have the skills to monitor for seabird bycatch. We’ve recently held training events in Namibia and South Africa, and have had hugely positive feedback from the observers, who now know their black-browed from their Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, and are keen to start checking for compliance.

It’s a long road to saving the albatross, but thanks to funding from BirdFair, the Albatross Task Force has been able to make good progress toward reducing the vast numbers of birds killed every year. In some colonies albatross numbers are starting to increase, and in others the declines have levelled off. We hope that through our continued engagement with fishers the tide will truly turn for the albatross, and one day we will be able to say they are no longer threatened.

 Image courtesy of John Paterson