Conservationists say a plan relying on voluntary – not mandatory – measures to reduce the number of seabirds harmed by commercial fishing won’t be enough to restore populations 

They’re less melodious and more threatened than their land-based counterparts.

Ninety percent of New Zealand’s seabird species are threatened or at risk of extinction, compared with 74 percent of terrestrial birds. It’s a chart-topping statistic. No other country in the world has a higher number of threatened seabird species. 

But despite their threatened status, it’s estimated around 14,400 seabirds were hooked, captured or killed by commercial fishing boats last year.

In trawl nets the birds get trapped trying to feed on fish and can be hurt or drowned. They can also collide with “warps” – wire ropes holding the nets. In long-line fishing, birds get hooked eating baits, and set nets can entangle diving birds such as petrels and penguins.

Most New Zealand seabirds are protected under the Wildlife Act, but commercial fishing gets a free pass and fishers do not face any punishment for killing birds if it’s accidental, or incidental to legal fishing efforts. 

There are only a few mandatory measures which must be taken to avoid harming seabirds. Other measures are voluntary.

Not reporting catching seabirds can result in a fine of $10,000.

“This is the perversity of the system and why we’re calling for a zero bycatch goal,” said Forest & Bird spokesperson Geoff Keey.

The organisation has declared 2020 the year of the seabird in the hope it could make their future brighter. 

“There is a penalty for not reporting catching a seabird, but it is treated as if it’s a complete accident. It is an accident that happens with such regularity you can use computer models to estimate how many in a year are going to be caught.”

He said the models work out the rate at which the accidents can happen without the birds going extinct.

“That is the threshold they are looking at. These are not accidents. They are assumed as part of the fishing process … it’s collateral damage which has become normalised.”

Seabirds returned to port for necropsy last year by commercial fishing boats included Salvin’s albatross which are classed as nationally critical, the last step on New Zealand’s threat classification system before extinction. The birds showed a range of injuries ranging from being water-logged to having broken wings, legs or feet, open wounds, hooks stuck in them, or being crushed.  

“It’s like a lolly scramble for birds. Of course they’re going to come.”

Keey believes the draft Plan of Action for Seabirds currently open for consultation won’t be enough to turn things around.

He acknowledges a goal of zero bycatch won’t be able to be achieved straight away but thinks there are immediate steps which could be made compulsory and would help seabirds.

“The idea is those measures should be required. It shouldn’t be voluntary, it shouldn’t just be up to the industry to decide when they can be bothered and when they can’t.”

One of them seems surprisingly simple. Currently there are no rules around discarding fish waste and offal from boats. 

“It’s like a lolly scramble for birds. Of course they’re going to come.”

Once there, they’re in the path of nets and hooks. Switching to only discarding waste at night would cut the numbers attracted, said Keey.

A drowned wandering albatross caught on a long line hook. Photo: Getty Images

Other easy fixes include hook shields and streamers.

Regulations do exist making the use of at least one or two mitigation measures mandatory for some types of fishing, from certain sized boats, but there’s no blanket rule saying all possible mitigation measures be taken.

“Many fishers are trying their best, but not all, and the fact is that voluntary action has not reduced the rate of seabird deaths for over a decade,” said Keey.

He would also like to see cameras introduced on all commercial fishing boats to get get more accurate statistics. Data shows when observers or cameras aren’t on board, fewer bird captures are reported. A study by the Australian Ministry of Agriculture showed once cameras were installed, reporting of the bycatch of birds and mammals increased nearly eight times.

New Zealand data shows seabird bycatch reporting can be low when Ministry for Primary Industry fishing observers aren’t onboard. For the 2017 to 2018 year 37 percent of trips targeting highly migratory species with observers onboard reported non-fish bycatch. Remove the observer, and the reported rate drops to 4 percent of trips. A note on the annual report for this data says:

“The difference in observed and non-observed reporting has been raised at the Fish Plan Advisory Group meeting in November 2018, and at the Longline Workshops in November 2018 and May 2019. It was highlighted that reporting seabird captures is a legal requirement and fishers were encouraged to be more diligent in this area.”

Currently cameras are only mandatory on boats in the Māui fisheries area, although trials have been running in other areas.

What the industry says

Seafood New Zealand’s chief executive Tim Pankhurst said the industry was committed to mitigating its impact on seabirds and worked with various conservation groups.

“No fisher wants to catch a seabird and the vast majority of fishers do everything they can to avoid captures.”

Not all mitigation measures are always feasible. While the industry realises managing how it discards waste is a key measure, not all boats can discard at night, especially those which only do day trips. Night-time disposal can pose a risk in itself.

“Returning fish and waste to the sea at night brings a different problem with the attraction of birds at a time when they would have reduced vision to see threats.”

Hook shields come at a high-cost and some are being trialed he said. Also being trialed are underwater bait setters and improved weighting on lines.

He said streamers are already used extensively, some as a mandatory requirement, and often voluntarily,

“It would be impossible to have one mandatory mitigation measure for all types of vessels, but regulation remains an option if voluntary mitigation measures are not achieving the desired outcomes.”

He said the seafood industry supported the a plan being developed.

A wishy-washy plan of action

Forest & Bird’s southern regional manager Sue Maturin has been involved in meetings on the National Plan of Action – Seabirds 2020 which is currently in draft form and open for public submissions. Once in place, it will be in effect for five years.

She thinks the draft is better than previous plans created in 2004 and 2013.

Neither of those drove a consistent decrease in seabird bycatch across all fisheries. She thinks this plan needs firm targets set.

“We want year-on-year reductions. We want a performance standard that requires fishing-related deaths decline by 20 percent annually to achieve zero by 2025.

“The objectives need to be measuring the progress towards achieving zero bycatch and currently they’re not.”

The draft plan calls for a decrease in fishing related deaths of seabirds on the average for between 2014 and 2017. 

“But at the moment, all they say is ‘decreasing’. It could just be by one. It doesn’t put any pressure on the industry to perform.”

There was a clear desire from some bigger operators at meetings to avoid catching birds – but there’s still been resistance to transitioning from voluntary measures to mandatory.

“It’s really in their [fishers] interests to do that because our fishing industry could be the most responsible in the world and have a reputation for not catching seabirds.”

She said there are a range of mitigation measures which are known to work.

“It’s clear that because the bycatch rate hasn’t been reducing, either they’re not being used properly, not being used consistently, or not being used at all.”

The rules

There are some rules in place for some types of fishing to reduce the risk to seabird but it can be a pick-n-mix situation where one or two of three potential measures must be used. Maturin said this falls short of best practice guidelines for seabird conservation.

– As of January 10 surface longliners must use hook shields unless streamers are used, or the line is set at night or weighted to sink quickly. 

 – Bottom longliners longer than 7m must use streamers to deter birds if they are setting lines during the day and use line weights. Fish waste can’t be disposed of when the line is being set and waste can only be discarded on the opposite side of the boat to where the line is pulled in during hauling. 

– Trawlers larger than 28m must use one of three mitigation measures. These include streamer lines (also referred to as tori lines); bird bafflers; or warp deflectors.

None of the rules apply to smaller vessels or set netting. 

In 2016, a skipper was prosecuted for killing 39 albatross in two separate trips, ignoring the advice of an onboard MPI observer to set streamers on longlines.

Asked why he said: “… in my experience [over] the last six years I’ve had nothing but f…… trouble with the things.”

The maximum penalty for the offence was $100,000 and the loss of the boat. The sentence the skipper received was 300 hours of community work.

At the time, Forest & Bird pointed out the sentence equated to eight hours per bird killed.

Submissions to the draft plan close January 27

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