Troubled waters: fishing ‘bycatch’ is decimating Europe’s seabirds


Bycatch from fishing is killing Europe’s seabirds in large and unsustainable numbers. Jeremy Herry exposes the size of the issue and sheds lights on the easy options that would flip issues round – with sufficient political will.

Because it shears effortlessly over the nice and cozy Mediterranean, a hungry Scopoli’s Shearwater instantly goals for a single squid on the water’s floor. This wonderful diver can normally go as deep as 28 metres underwater, however this time, one thing is off. Simply because the seabird was anticipating to savour the tender and juicy cephalopod, it feels a thick, chilly steel hook gash by means of its throat. It seems the squid was bait on a fishing line.

The shearwater is significantly damage. It’s panicking. It must get out of the water, however the hook has now sunk, and received’t let it go away. To high all of it off, sea water is now beginning to fill its lungs. It’s too late. This shearwater has turn into one more sufferer of seabird bycatch.

Bycatch happens when fishing vessels unintentionally catch seabirds and different marine life with their strains or nets. It’s the single best risk that birds face at sea. Globally, seabirds have declined by 70 per cent prior to now 50 years, and are at present one of the threatened teams of birds on the earth. They’re even one of the threatened teams of all vertebrate animals.

Scopoli’s Shearwater, copyright Angus Hogg, from the surfbirds galleries

Grim outlook

In Europe, the image is especially grim – far worse than is usually appreciated. An estimated 200,000 seabirds are killed by bycatch yearly. That’s 23 each hour. A couple of each three minutes. That implies that each time you sweep your tooth, by the point you’re completed, bycatch has killed one more seabird.

As stunning as this determine could also be, it doesn’t even inform the entire story. It primarily covers two varieties of fishing gear, longlines and gillnets, as there’s a lack of know-how on bycatch from different varieties of fishing tools. Longline fishing makes use of a protracted fundamental line with baited hooks hooked up at intervals with shorter strains. Most victims of longline bycatch are interested in the baited hooks when the gear is being set. They get hooked on the floor, after which dragged underwater, the place they finally drown. Gillnets are giant vertical nets that cling from a line floating on the floor and stretch deep into the water with a weighted backside line. Right here too, birds can get trapped underwater within the nets and find yourself drowning.

What’s extra, only a few fishing boats have observers monitoring bycatch on board, and the enforcement of bycatch monitoring could be very poor. As well as, the monitoring solely counts seabirds that die. Many are injured and even maimed. Some are caught by fishing gear however escape earlier than reaching the floor, so might go unnoticed. Some are captured alive.

If you happen to’re ever on board a fishing boat and this occurs, the very first thing to do is to make sure the vessel slows down or stops. Then, the hen must be slowly hauled on board, and immobilised with a towel. The online ought to then fastidiously be eliminated, or the hook or line minimize on the degree of the mouth. If the hen is in dangerous situation, it is going to have to be taken to a wildlife rescue centre. Even when it doesn’t survive, scientists should still be capable of achieve useful info from its physique.

Timeline of demise

Bycatch is a really latest phenomenon. Seabirds have at all times fed within the sea, however prior to now, industrial fishing was nowhere close to the extent of immediately’s scale and depth. Some seabirds are notably weak to bycatch due to the way in which they advanced. Take albatrosses, for instance. Many don’t breed earlier than they’re 10 years previous, and produce not more than a single egg each one or two years. To compensate for this, they advanced into very long-lived creatures, with a low pure grownup mortality, one particular person even reaching the ripe age of 70.

The difficulty with these traits is that even small will increase in grownup mortality can lead to inhabitants declines: and that is precisely the case with bycatch. At this time, 15 of the world’s 22 albatross species are threatened with extinction. What was as soon as an evolutionary benefit is now a threat. That is additionally the case for among the carefully associated shearwaters. You would possibly suppose that seabirds would evolve and adapt to bycatch, however the issue is that the velocity of organic evolution is nowhere close to as quick as industrial and technological development. The birds merely can’t sustain.

Within the Mediterranean basin, sure frequent fishing practices enhance the danger of bycatch: fishing at daybreak, when it’s almost definitely that seabirds will likely be encountered; widespread longline fishing with baited hooks that entice birds; and using floating gadgets that make the hooks keep longer on the floor of the water.

Many species are in danger within the Mediterranean. These most affected are Audouin’s Gull, Scopoli’s, Yelkouan, Cory’s and Balearic Shearwaters, European Shag and Northern Gannet. Balearic Shearwater, an endemic breeder within the Mediterranean, is classed as Critically Endangered, and bycatch is a real menace to the species, which is now threatened with extinction inside the subsequent 60 years.

The issue is just not confined to southern Europe. Within the Baltic Sea, the predicament of a spread of various species isn’t any much less dire. Lengthy-tailed Duck, Crimson-throated Diver, Widespread Guillemot, Nice Cormorant and Velvet Scoter are all struggling immensely from the bycatch disaster. Yearly within the Baltic, 76,000 birds are estimated to be killed by bycatch. And wintering birds have declined by greater than 40 per cent within the final 30 years alone.

Whereas seabirds stay its major victims, bycatch harms many different animals, too. Sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and rays are killed by bycatch yearly in Europe’s waters. Within the Mediterranean, a staggering 44,000 sea turtles are estimated to be killed annually.

One other group that bycatch is dangerous for, maybe surprisingly, is the fishing group. They need to keep away from it: it damages their fishing gear, slows down operations, and so they simply don’t need to hurt wildlife. At BirdLife, now we have been interviewing fishing crews from round Europe’s seas to find out about their relationship with nature and the way they understand bycatch. Right here’s an extract of an interview from our Fish Tales collection with Belhaj Aziz-M’diq, a 42-year-old Moroccan fisherman who works within the Mediterranean:

“Sadly, typically different animals get caught in our fishing nets. It’d take a while, but it surely’s vital for me to place them again within the water, to avoid wasting them. Why? As a result of we have to shield marine biodiversity. In any other case, we’ll create an imbalance. With local weather change and air pollution, human actions are already damaging marine life, so we attempt our greatest to respect the ocean, and nature normally.”

This spirit of eager to protect nature’s steadiness is broadly shared among the many crew members we interviewed. Bycatch is a scourge. However the excellent news is that options exist.

How you can forestall seabird bycatch

There are each sensible and political options to assist forestall bycatch. In notably harmful areas, authorities can relieve the stress on wildlife by spatially proscribing fishing operations, both quickly or completely. On high of saving seabirds, no-fishing zones would permit fish populations to replenish, which fishing communities desperately want in the long term.

It’s additionally needed to finish dangerous subsidies. Shockingly, 20 billion euros in public cash is spent globally yearly to help harmful fishing. Some subsidies are even offered to fishing firms and vessels that have interaction within the degradation of marine habitats or pressured labour, practices that should cease. One of many issues that makes bycatch so tragic is that it’s straightforward to keep away from. Saving seabirds is feasible, and it’s one thing that conservationists and people working within the fishing business each need. It’s a query of priorities.

Do you need to assist save seabirds? Contact your elected representatives and encourage them to take motion. If you recognize somebody working within the fishing business, inform them concerning the many strategies they will use to forestall bycatch. You may also share your ideas on social media utilizing the #SaveSeabirds hashtag to assist create larger consciousness of the issue. And please contemplate making a donation to BirdLife, to help our marketing campaign efforts to finish the seabird bycatch disaster.


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