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Gillnets killing a minimum of 400,000 seabirds every year

16/05/2013 08:25:51

Bird bones found from the USFWS Puget Sound Derelict Fishing Gear Project. The project recovered 3600 gillnets, averaging 7000 square feet, preventing the deaths of 1.1 million mammals, fish, birds and invertebrates each year. Courtesy USFWS/J Drinkwin

Gillnets: A fatal attraction for seabirds

May 2013. A new study, published by BirdLife scientists and marine biologist Dr Ramunas ┼Żydelis, reveals that a staggering 400,000 birds are killed each year in gillnet fisheries. This number exceeds the estimated toll of bird deaths documented in longline fisheries. This is the first time the massive scale of this problem has been laid bare - making it clear that urgent action is needed to tackle it.

Minimum estimate
The study, which is the first global estimate of seabird bycatch in gillnet fisheries, points out that the huge death toll should be viewed as a minimum estimate because of the gaps in data and other factors like ‘ghost fishing', where lost fishing gear continues to capture birds.

Dr. ┼Żydelis stated: "Unlike longline and trawl fisheries, for which there are simple technical solutions available to reduce seabird bycatch, research into similar measures for gillnets has been very limited to date and further efforts are urgently required."

Gillnets are fixed gear used across the world, largely in coastal fisheries, to catch a variety of different fish. They are generally made from fine nylon, making them virtually invisible underwater. Not surprisingly, this poses a particular problem for diving seabirds, which readily become entangled and drown when pursuing their prey underwater.

Endangered species
Species accidentally captured include threatened Humboldt penguins and long-tailed ducks, the endangered marbled murrelet, and more widespread species like common guillemot. Seabirds are not the only victims; gillnets also pose a major bycatch threat to dolphins, whales, seals and turtles.

Baltic Sea a major problem
Bycatch levels of seabirds were found to be highest in the Baltic Sea, where an estimated 76,000 birds are killed each year, in Nordic regions and the Northwest Pacific Ocean. The review is far-reaching but data gaps remain in places where bycatch is suspected, including the South Atlantic, Mediterranean and Southeast Pacific, as well as Japanese and Korean waters.

While remedial action has been limited thus far, authorities are starting to take notice. The EU Plan of Action, launched last November to minimise the bycatch of seabirds in fishing gears, highlighted gillnets as a priority for action. However, this plan is essentially voluntary, so BirdLife is calling for binding measures to be delivered under the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) to improve data collection and provide funding for research into how best to prevent seabirds being killed in gillnets.

Longline issues addressed
Rory Crawford, senior policy officer at BirdLife's Global Seabird Programme, stated: "We've shown, through deploying our Albatross Task Force teams on longline and trawl vessels around the world, that a collaborative approach, working closely with the fishing industry, can deliver big reductions in seabird bycatch."

He continued: "BirdLife aims to work together with gillnet fishermen to develop workable solutions to this problem. It is imperative that the new EU Plan of Action opens up resources to find technical fixes and fill gaps in our knowledge. This is vital for species like Steller's eider, long-tailed duck and velvet scoter, all of which are globally threatened and declining at an alarming rate in the Baltic Sea. Gillnet bycatch - the sleeping giant of seabird threats - must now be tackled with the utmost urgency."

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