Seabirds often flock to fishing vessels attracted by bait meant for fish. Albatrosses spend up to 90 percent of their lives soaring above the ocean. They are particularly at risk of becoming bycatch by getting accidentally hooked or entangled in fishing gear. NOAA Fisheries’ National Seabird Program has made great strides in protecting and conserving seabirds, like albatrosses, by working with fishermen to develop solutions.
Albatrosses are among the world’s largest seabirds, with a wingspan up to 11 feet. They are master gliders, flying over vast areas of the ocean without flapping their wings. These long-lived, slowly maturing birds produce a single chick only every 1 to 2 years.
The Short-tailed Albatross is one of three albatross species that range throughout the North Pacific Ocean and are found in U.S. waters. The others are the Black-footed and Laysan albatross. Of 22 species in the albatross family, 15 are classified as globally threatened. The Short-tailed Albatross is the only one listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The 2020 estimate of Short-tailed Albatross is less than 7,500 individuals worldwide.
“As a group, albatrosses are some of the most endangered seabirds,” says Tom Good, a fisheries biologist and seabird expert at NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “And bycatch is one of the top threats.” NOAA’s latest report on Seabird Bycatch in U.S. West Coast Fisheries found that the main causes of seabird bycatch mortality were:
- Hook-and-line fisheries (50–63 percent, primarily albatrosses, shearwaters, and gulls)
- Trawl fisheries (31–45 percent,primarily shearwaters, fulmars, and gulls)
- Pot fisheries at 2–6 percent (primarily cormorants)
In U.S. West Coast groundfish fisheries, most of the albatross bycatch mortality comes from limited-entry sablefish vessels fishing with hook-and-line gear.
Fortunately, many countries have developed seabird avoidance measures in coordination and cooperation with fishermen. In addition to dramatically reducing seabird bycatch, these measures have also reduced bait loss and improved fishing efficiency. In 2015, NOAA Fisheries and partners received the Presidential Migratory Bird Stewardship Award. It recognized work to prevent migratory seabird mortality in the U.S. West Coast Groundfish longline fishery and for outstanding efforts on behalf of bird conservation.
The combined efforts of fishermen, scientists, and policy-makers have reduced seabird deaths substantially. :
6 Ways Fishermen Can Help Protect Seabirds
1. Streamer Lines on Hook-and-Line Vessels
Streamer lines, also known as tori lines, bird-scaring lines, or bait-saver lines, are proven to virtually eliminate seabird mortality caused by longline fishing. Japanese bluefin tuna fishermen recognized that keeping birds away from their bait was in their own economic interest, and were the first to develop streamer lines. Streamer lines are mounted on poles at the stern of the boat and connected to a floating buoy behind the vessel. Colored streamers attached to the lines flap erratically in the wind. The flapping streamers scare birds away from the bait. Streamer lines have reduced seabird bycatch in Alaska fisheries by 80 percent or more, preventing the deaths of thousands of seabirds every year.
2. Setting Gear at Night
In West Coast waters and Western Pacific fisheries, crews must set their gear at night. This has been shown to reduce albatross bycatch as these seabirds feed primarily during the day. The effectiveness of night setting in reducing albatross bycatch is well-documented in many regional studies. Deck lights should be kept at the minimum level appropriate for crew safety and directed inboard so the line is not illuminated as it leaves the vessel.
3. Line Weighting
Albatrosses mainly forage on the water’s surface and in shallow depths, diving on average just up to 1.5 meters. Weighted hooks lower the bait beyond reach of the feeding seabirds.
4. Dyeing Bait Blue
Dyeing bait dark blue reduces the contrast between the bait and the surrounding seawater, making it more difficult for foraging seabirds to detect. Originally suggested by fishermen, studies were conducted to determine the effectiveness of dying squid bait blue and the technique was accepted and adopted. Since then, management actions resulted in changing bait from squid to mackerel-type bait to reduce sea turtle interactions and bycatch. Blue-dyed mackerel is currently required in the U.S. highly migratory species (Pacific tunas, swordfish, sharks, and billfish) longline fisheries regulations.
5. Discharge Fish Waste
In large parts of the western and central Pacific Ocean, vessels must dump fish waste away from baited hooks. Discharging waste on the opposite side of the boat avoids drawing seabirds where they might be caught and injured. NOAA Fisheries is studying the effectiveness of this practice in Hawaii.
"Side-setting" involves setting baited hooks along the side and closer to the front of the vessel instead of off the stern. Crews also attach weights to the fishing lines within one meter of the hooks so the bait sinks beyond reach of the birds. Combined with "bird curtains" that keep birds from landing alongside vessels, these measures greatly reduce bycatch mortality of seabirds.
Bycatch can be reduced to effectively zero by combining bycatch reduction methods. Using of tori lines, night setting, and weighted branch lines together is considered a best practice for reducing seabird bycatch in pelagic longline fisheries.
The Road Ahead
In collaboration with Oregon Sea Grant, we continue to study seabird bycatch and work with fishermen to protect seabirds in U.S. West Coast groundfish fisheries. Current cooperative research studies in Hawaii pelagic longline fisheries are testing "light" tori line designs. They are also looking at the effectiveness of tori lines as a potential alternative to dumping fish waste and blue dyed bait requirements. We are also testing the efficacy of new methods, such as:
- Underwater-setting chutes, a technique to deploy baited hooks below the surface of the sea
- Laser and sonic deterrents
- Bait casters
- Hook-shielding devices
- Line shooters
Funding from NOAA’s Cooperative Research Grant for 2022–2024 plans to study seabird bycatch in vessels that use other gear types, like floats and weights, and deliver fishing gear modifications that can reduce bycatch.
Each fishery is different and the causes and implications of bycatch often differ. Therefore, no single solution to the “bycatch challenge” exists. Rather, fishermen, managers, scientists, and conservationists must work together to address bycatch—one that will promote the sustainability of our nation’s marine life. Our National Seabird Program Five-Year Strategic Plan: 2020–2024 has five strategic initiatives, ranging from developing strategies for a long-term, integrated scientific approach to the collection of biological, economic, and social data to continue monitoring and mitigating bycatch.
How Can You Help?
U.S. fishermen abide by some of the most rigorous environmental measures in the world. Vessels operating in U.S waters must minimize their impact on seabirds and report any accidental deaths. Our fishery observers and at-sea monitors gather first-hand data on what's caught and discarded by U.S. commercial fishing vessels. Electronic monitoring technology allows fishermen to track their catch. It has shown to be a valuable research tool, critical to bycatch reduction and aiding seabird conservation efforts. In addition to our law enforcement program, we also work with 27 coastal states and partner with other agencies such as the U.S. Coast Guard to enforce regulations.
You can help support sustainable fisheries by making smart seafood choices using FishWatch. FishWatch arms you with the facts about what makes U.S. seafood sustainable. You can use the database to search any fish and see up-to-date information on its population status, habitat impacts, bycatch, and fishing rate.