Many years ago I joined my cousin, the mate on a sporting vessel, on a fishing trip off the North Carolina coast. We were trolling baited lines in hopes of catching striped bass.
I was in the wheelhouse when a mighty expletive arose from one of the three paying client fishermen. Looking astern, I saw a large white bird floundering in the sea — it had dived to take one of the towed baitfish and now was hooked.
The client angrily jerked the rod, reeling in the struggling animal, a Northern gannet. The bird, once on deck, was judged to have swallowed the hook. The captain moved swiftly to cut the line and toss the doomed bird overboard, but before he could act, I asked to examine the bird.
He handed it over, all seven struggling, kicking, flapping pounds of it. The bird’s face, so close to my own now, was striking; its desperately clacking chisel-like bill, a slight taupe tincture at the top of the head, and staring white eyes ringed in startling turquoise.
With the captain’s help, I pried the bill open and found that the hook hadn’t been swallowed but was merely caught in the bird’s throat. Using pliers, I reached into the wildly vocalizing mouth, seized the hook and with a quick downward motion removed it.
The captain immediately, and with unexpected delight, hurled the bird high into the air, and we all watched silently as it departed our company at top speed. The client who’d been so enraged at the bird’s interruption of his fishing exclaimed quietly: “Man, that was… really something.”
Unfortunately, this Northern gannet was one of the few lucky victims of bycatch. Most of the billions of animals swept up accidentally by commercial fishermen and sport anglers every year die. But in far away Namibia, they’ve found a simple solution to the problem the rest of the world could tune to as an inspiration and example.
The Critically Endangered Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena). Breeding populations are restricted to Gough Island, roughly 2,000 miles southwest of Namibia, according to the IUCN; adults fly above fishing waters several hundred miles off Namibia’s coast. A major threat to the species are longline fisheries. Photo by michael clarke stuff Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license
The waste of bycatch
Accidental take of marine animals by commercial fisheries is a serious but largely unsung global problem, with a breathtaking 40 percent of the world’s marine fishing haul essentially disposed of as garbage annually. That’s roughly 63 billion pounds of unwanted wildlife — seabirds, marine mammals and sea turtles, countless fish species, rays, and cephalopods — inadvertently killed by swallowing baited hooks or getting entangled in nets.
This bycatch, as it is called, suffers the fate that our Northern gannet nearly experienced. All 63 billion pounds of marine animals, usually dead or dying, is thrown overboard, a tremendous waste of wildlife, that until fairly recently was casually taken for granted.
Today, some governments — with an increasing understanding of the devastation wrought by traditional fishing methods — are beginning to require that commercial, and sometimes sport, fishermen apply specially designed devices to their equipment to minimize this senseless loss of life.
An Endangered Atlantic Yellow-nosed albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos). Uncounted numbers of seabirds fall victim to bycatch every year, even though there are fairly simple and inexpensive devices available to prevent their deaths. Photo by JJ Harrison, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 3.0
Turtle Excluder Devices or TEDs, for example, have been required in the United States since 1987, with the nets of shrimping boats mandated to include a metal grid that allows shrimp to pass through while blocking the turtles, sharks and other large animals that otherwise would be rendered as bycatch — this allows the unwanted animals to escape unharmed through a vent at the top or bottom of the net.
This is a promising technological achievement for a rich country that long neglected its bycatch problem. But financially strapped nations in the developing world have been slow to follow with bycatch prevention equipment, or with the governmental programs needed to get it installed and accepted by traditional, often very conservative fishermen.
Namibia leads the way in battling seabird bycatch
Little-known Namibia, in southwest Africa, could well be the nation that is currently leading the pack in protecting seabirds, a particularly interesting happening considering that the country was previously known as the “world’s worst fishery” in terms of avian bycatch.
Namibia’s fishermen are usually going after hake, a cod-like fish that constitutes around 50 percent of the country’s N$11 billion (US$845 million) fishing industry. However, in the process, commercial fishermen have been killing more than 30,000 seabirds as bycatch every year, including the Tristan albatross (IUCN Red Listed as Critically Endangered); the Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross (Endangered); black-browed albatross and shy albatross (both Near Threatened); and the White-chinned petrel and Cape gannet (both Vulnerable).
Albatrosses are the most highly threatened group of birds on earth, and at Namibia’s level of accidental take, the country’s fishing industry was on the way to playing a major role in helping these bird species spiral to extinction.
Samantha Matjila preparing to go to sea. She’s found Namibia fishermen to be receptive to the introduction of new devices to prevent bycatch. Photo courtesy of the Albatross Task Force
Samantha Matjila is with the Namibia Nature Foundation, which represents her country on the international Albatross Task Force (ATF) composed of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Uruguay, South Africa and Namibia. Last spring, she enrolled in a program that the ATF, which is hosted by BirdLife International, had been conducting in Namibia since 2008, but which has been ramped up since the Namibian government introduced tight new regulations in 2014 to mandate the use of bycatch abatement equipment on all commercial fishing vessels, with a fine of N$500,000 (US$38,400) and up to ten years in prison awaiting violators.
Matjila’s job is to show fishermen how to fit the various devices used to avoid bycatch to a boat’s fishing gear. Then she accompanies the fishermen out to sea to show them how the gadgets work in practice.
The anti-bycatch tools are quite simple and easy to use, and include “bird-scaring” lines (also known as tori lines or streamers) that are being used by the nation’s 70 trawling vessels. Bird-scaring lines, along with line-weighting and nocturnal baiting techniques, are used by Namibia’s 12 longline fishing vessels.
Albatrosses, some of which can live for 60 years, are caught and drown when they attack a baited hook before it can sink out of their diving range. The bird-scaring lines consist of 150-meter-long ropes with brightly colored streamers placed two or three meters apart. Line-weighting involves the placement of additional weighted sinkers on each line so the bait sinks more rapidly while setting a longline — a miles-long main line with as many as 2,500 baited hooks dangling from shorter lines. These lines are also set out at night to prevent the bycatch of diurnal albatrosses.
Namibian fishermen sort through “bird scare” lines in preparation for their use. Photo courtesy of the Albatross Task Force
Across the border in South Africa, where the ATF has been working with fishermen since 2006 using the same simple techniques, the successes have been astounding, with a decline of over 90 percent in seabird bycatch. Similar success is being seen in Namibia, with the ATF hoping to reach an 85-90 percent reduction in bycatch in the near future.
The ATF first worked with volunteer Namibian fishermen in 2008, says Matjila. “We didn’t know what the impact of Namibian fisheries would be back then, but we knew there was an overlap of where albatrosses roam and where the vessels set their hooks. We also knew that simple, practical measures existed that could reduce seabird deaths.”
But what about hostile reactions to new regulations (something seen at first when TEDs were introduced in the U.S.)? “Working with the fishermen and sharing in discussions with them about the bycatch law, it is safe to say that, yes, they are very accepting as they realize the benefits of the mitigation measures introduced to them,” Matjila says.
After being certified by the ATF, Namibia’s commercial fishermen are monitored aboard their vessels by agents of the National Fisheries Observer Agency. Oliver Yates, BirdLife International’s Global Albatross Task Force Coordinator, says that today, “close to 100 percent of vessels carry observers. This is particularly good coverage and makes Namibia a perfect example of how this could/should work effectively,” around the globe.
The Meme Itumbapo Women’s Group and their handmade bird-scaring lines. Photo courtesy of BirdLife International
Saving birds through a sustainable economy
It’s not just seabirds that benefit from Namibia’s program. According to Matjila, “The fishing companies purchase bird-scaring lines produced by a local organization called the ‘Meme Itumbapo Women’s Group.’ Meme Itumbapo is a consortium of five women, aged 33 to 47, who generate a small income from traditional jewelry sales. These women also now manufacture and supply the bird-scaring lines for the longline and trawling fisheries from their headquarters ‘Bird’s Paradise,’ in Walvis Bay, a coastal city.
“The women are funded by an independent Namibian port authority, Namport, and we are working to make this a sustainable venture which will ensure provision of affordable bird-scaring lines for the fishery,” she says.
These hardworking and adaptable women shifted easily from stringing together beautiful necklaces made out of seashells to supplying ten percent (so far) of the equipment needed by Namibia’s fishing fleet to save seabirds — an example of sustainable, affordable conservation, as well as gender equality.
The ATF is now promising that, “Their hand-built, quality-assured, local, affordable lines will be flying off the back of more and more Namibian fishing boats in the next two years.”
A Near Threatened shy albatross (Thalassarche cauta). Photo by JJ Harrison Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License
Clemens Naomab was one of the ATF’s first Namibian anti-bycatch trainers. He tells how he earned the trust of often insular and independent fishermen: “Namibians like to watch European football, especially the English premier league,” he explains. “Most of our relationships are developed by trading stories about football. When you have a good relationship with the fishermen it is easier to communicate with them.”
Using the universal language of sports, Naomab broke through barriers and earned a place alongside his fishermen buddies, who all quickly absorbed his instructive and useful lessons and mastered the skills needed to save seabirds. “Most of the fisherman are quick to adopt the measures once you explain to them the procedures and what is required of them,” he says.
Naomab adds: “I have always loved nature and everything that comes with it,” which is why he eagerly accepted his job with the ATF, a move he initially regretted when he realized he was prone to seasickness.
Now he laughs off those early days of misery at sea, saying that, “My first few trips were hard, because I used to get really sick. At first I didn’t know much about seabirds, actually I never thought I would be involved with seabirds. As time passed, I started noticing how beautiful and majestic these birds are, and at the end of the day all those sleepless nights on the fishing vessels were worth it.”
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Clemens Naomab of the Albatross Task Force (ATF) cataloging seabirds. Photo courtesy of the Albatross Task Force