In 1991 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Oganization adopted a plan of action for the worldwide reduction of incidental catches of seabirds in driftnets, longlines and gillnets used by fishing vessels.
A longline is a baited fishing line anything up to 75 miles (120km) in length that is let out into the water behind a fishing vessel.
A gillnet is a net hung vertically in the water behind a fishing vessel and kept vertical by floats at the top and weights at the bottom.
A driftnet is a string of gillnets tied end to end. They may be many miles long and instead of being anchored at the far end as gillnets are, they are allowed to drift with the current.
How They Kill Birds
Birds are attracted by the offal that the fishing vessels dump, and the birds will follow the vessels and congregate precisely because they know there are likely to be easy pickings.
Once there, the birds are lured by the bait on the hooks on the longlines and they crash into the gillnets as they dive and chase fish underwater.
For some birds, the easy pickings are fatal.
Estimated Two Million Seabirds Killed
The Royal Society For The Protection Of Birds and Birdlife International estimate that in the last ten years two million seabirds have died by being hooked on longlines or trapped in gillnets in European waters.
The record for the south Atlantic and the Pacific is better.
It is the European fishing areas that are failing to fish so as to minimise bycatch, as catching birds incidentally is called.
Driftnets of any length have been banned in certain waters worldwide since 1991 because of their impact on species such as dolphin, turtles, swordfish, and tuna.
Driftnets over one-and-a-half miles (2.5km) in length have been banned in European Union Waters since 1991 and completely banned in the Baltic Sea since 2008. This is all aimed at reducing incidental catches of creatures that inhabit the sea, but it does not address what is happening to seabirds that are caught in longlines and gillnets.
The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) says that the data is patchy but what is available indicates that it is albatrosses, shearwaters, petrels, fulmars, gannets, gulls, cormorants, shags, auks, divers, and grebes that are being killed by being hooked on longlines and caught in the nets of gillnets.
These birds are long-lived species and so their populations are sensitive to changes in the survival rates of adult birds.
Many of these seabirds are on the endangered species list. When they are caught on longlines and gillnets far out to sea – where their deaths are not recorded – it confounds efforts to monitor them and to protect them.
European Union Action
This year the European Union has issued a consultation paper that has been open for contributions since June 11th. The window within which to make contributions closes on August 9th.
Pending the formulation of the European Union Action plan, here is a precis of the recommendations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) for fishing methods which reduce the numbers of birds caught as bycatch. The recommendations are described as combining “a set of very simple techniques which do not restrict fisheries and do not require any expensive equipment.”
Set hooklines with weights so they sink beyond the reach of seabirds as soon as they are put in the water.
Set longlines at night with only the minimum ship’s lights showing.
Don’t dump offal while longlines are being set.
Remove fish hooks from offal and fish heads before dumping them.
Run a brightly-colored streamer line above the water to scare away birds from the fishing line.
You Can Add Your Voice
The European Fisheries Commission action plan initiative states:
The European Commission intends to develop an EU Action Plan to reduce incidental catches of seabirds in fishing gears. The proposed initiative aims to reduce such catches, namely in longlines and gillnets, by reducing as much as possible the interaction between seabirds and fishing gear.
To this end, the Commission invites all stakeholders and general public to express their views on the questions identified in the consultation paper, as well as to present their opinions regarding further actions that could be introduced in a future Commission proposal for an EU-Plan of Action on Seabirds
If you wish to add your contribution, perhaps by suggesting that the recommendations of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) be implemented straight away, you can do so by clicking on the link in the consultation paper under the section headed ‘How to submit your contribution.’