Simple solution takes wings

Streamer lines flap to scare the birds away. (Supplied)

Streamer lines flap to scare the birds away. (Supplied)

The tragedy of the albatross has been told many times over: these huge birds, whose massive wing spans carry them for years across remote reaches of the oceans, only coming in to land on isolated islands to breed, have been decimated as by-catch in commercial fisheries around the world.

But that oft-told story of doom has been reversed in the seas around South Africa, where the hake trawl fishery has been able to reduce the bird kills by 99%. How is this possible?

“The idea of bird-scaring lines originated with a Japanese captain, back in the late 1980s or early 1990s,” explains Dr Ross Wanless, programme director of the Albatross Task Force at Birdlife Africa.

“He saw the bird by-catch as a waste of bait and he devised a line – a mainline deployed off the back of the boat, which pulls taut.

“Attached to the mainline are streamer lines which flap around. They are deployed in the area where the birds are focused, and scare them away.”

In South African oceans, about 10 000 albatrosses a year were dying a cruel death as by-catch in this industry.

“We took the idea and modified it to suit our fishery,” says Wanless. “We’ve taken on board the concerns of fishermen and refined it. Now we have a really good product that works.”

The huge reduction in mortality is good news for the health of the marine eco-system. Albatrosses are the scavengers of the seas, playing a similar role to land creatures such as the black-backed jackal and the brown hyena.

They clean up the carcasses of dead whales, squid and other creatures that float to the surface. They also play a crucial role in the ecology of the small islands where they nest, fertilising them and turning the soil over, which permits smaller birds to burrow their nests.

Bird-scaring lines have become universal in the South African hake trawl industry. “It’s written into the permits that government issues now, that every boat must deploy two of these devices,” says Wanless.

“There has been a strong increase in compliance – when we’re out at sea, we even see that the boats belonging to companies we haven’t worked with are using the lines.” 

The fact that the lines involve minimal cost means there’s no impact on the fishing company’s bottom line. The bird-scaring lines are made by the Ocean View Association for Persons with Disabilities, providing work and a steady income for a marginalised community.

The Albatross Task Force partnered with WWF-SA to develop training for captains and crews. “The first time, they always get it wrong!” laughs Wanless. “But after that, it is simple and easy to use.”

The remarkable results obtained by the Albatross Task Force after years spent working in close collaboration with the fishing industry and government officials have positioned South Africa as a leader in best practice for seabird by-catch mitigation world-wide.