Nav: Home

New study: How to save a seabird

February 20, 2019

In the 1990s, the endangered status of the short-tailed albatross catalyzed efforts to reduce the number of birds accidentally killed as bycatch in Alaska, home to the country's biggest fisheries. Marine fisheries scientist Ed Melvin, at Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington, and research associate Kim Dietrich, an independent contractor, were at the forefront of a collaborative research effort that led to Alaska's longline fisheries adopting streamer lines in 2002, a technology that is towed behind vessels to create a visual barrier that keeps seabirds away from the baited hooks below.

In a new study published Jan. 28 in the journal Conservation Biology, Melvin, Dietrich and partners from Oregon State University and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center show that in the time since they were adopted, streamer lines have had an extraordinary impact: seabird bycatch in Alaska's longline fisheries has been reduced by 77 to 90 percent, saving thousands of birds per year including hundreds of albatrosses.

Melvin said much of this success is thanks to the fishing industry's active involvement when the team was researching methods to avoid seabird bycatch two decades ago.

"It's really to the industry's credit that they were fully engaged in the research and started implementing streamer lines two to three years before they became mandatory," Melvin said. "The fishermen owned the solution from start to finish."

The solution also involved training fisheries observers to properly identify seabirds in order to record vessel bycatch. "The data they were able to collect over decades allowed us to monitor and estimate bycatch rates and track the success of this effort," said co-author Shannon Fitzgerald, a fisheries scientist at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

The researchers arrived at their results by analyzing 23 years' worth of this meticulously collected fisheries observer data. While they found that bycatch rates remain much lower than the pre-streamer line days, more recently the number of birds hooked has been increasing.

"We have seen a continued increase in seabird bycatch, especially albatross, in Alaskan longline fisheries, with one of the recent years after our study the highest since 2002," said co-author Rob Suryan, a wildlife specialist at Oregon State University and research ecologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

In parsing out this trend, the researchers realized that bycatch significantly varied by both fishery and type of bird. The three species of highest conservation concern - the albatrosses - were more likely to be snared by a sablefish or halibut vessel than one that fishes cod. Other bird species, however, were more likely to be hooked by boats that fish for turbot, a type of flatfish.

The researchers looked into the success of other methods of bycatch reduction as well. Fishing at night, when many seabirds are less active, is a tactic commonly used elsewhere in the world. They found that fishing at night dramatically decreased bycatch rates of albatrosses while increasing the fish catch rates of Alaska's longline fleets - however, it also increased the accidental capture of northern fulmars by 40 percent.

While northern fulmars are not a species of conservation concern, the possibility of accidentally catching more of these seabirds certainly presents an unwelcome tradeoff. Melvin added that many fisheries operate in the summer, when Alaska's high latitude makes for very short nights; requiring night fishing could hurt the industry by substantially cutting down on the available fishing time.

Importantly, the scientists found that in recent years fewer than 2 percent of the 300 vessels they analyzed accounted for 46 to 78 percent of the bycatch. The authors said it is not clear why these particular boats caught so many birds. Perhaps they encountered unusually aggressive birds that were unable to locate natural prey, or perhaps they represent a newer generation of fishermen who do not feel the same urgency around seabird conservation because they were not working when the issue was first raised.

Whatever the reason, it suggests it's possible that resource managers don't need to rethink their entire seabird bycatch strategy. Targeting the few vessels with anomalously high bycatch rates with outreach about the proper use of streamer lines could prove to be enough.
-end-
This study was funded by The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

For more information, contact Melvin at edmelvin@uw.edu or 206-543-9968.

University of Washington

Related Birds Articles:

How birds evolved big brains
An international team of evolutionary biologists and paleontologists have reconstructed the evolution of the avian brain using a massive dataset of brain volumes from dinosaurs, extinct birds like Archaeopteryx and the great auk, and modern birds.
Microelectronics for birds
Ornithologists and physicists from St Petersburg University have conducted an interdisciplinary study together with colleagues from Sechenov Institute of Evolutionary Physiology and Biochemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Biological Station Rybachy of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Birds of a feather better not together
A new study of North American birds from Washington University in St.
Not-so-dirty birds? Not enough evidence to link wild birds to food-borne illness
Despite the perception that wild birds in farm fields can cause food-borne illness, a WSU study has found little evidence linking birds to E. coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter outbreaks.
Birds are shrinking as the climate warms
After 40 years of collecting birds that ran into Chicago buildings, scientists have been able to show that the birds have been shrinking as the climate's warmed up.
Diving birds follow each other when fishing
Diving seabirds watch each other to work out when to dive, new research shows.
Why do birds migrate at night?
Researchers found migratory birds maximize how much light they get from their environment, so they can migrate even at night. 
How can robots land like birds?
Birds can perch on a wide variety of surfaces, thick or thin, rough or slick.
Is wildfire management 'for the birds?'
Spotted owl populations are in decline all along the West Coast, and as climate change increases the risk of large and destructive wildfires in the region, these iconic animals face the real threat of losing even more of their forest habitat.
Feathers came first, then birds
New research, led by the University of Bristol, suggests that feathers arose 100 million years before birds -- changing how we look at dinosaurs, birds, and pterosaurs, the flying reptiles.
More Birds News and Birds Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Reinvention
Change is hard, but it's also an opportunity to discover and reimagine what you thought you knew. From our economy, to music, to even ourselves–this hour TED speakers explore the power of reinvention. Guests include OK Go lead singer Damian Kulash Jr., former college gymnastics coach Valorie Kondos Field, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dispatch 6: Strange Times
Covid has disrupted the most basic routines of our days and nights. But in the middle of a conversation about how to fight the virus, we find a place impervious to the stalled plans and frenetic demands of the outside world. It's a very different kind of front line, where urgent work means moving slow, and time is marked out in tiny pre-planned steps. Then, on a walk through the woods, we consider how the tempo of our lives affects our minds and discover how the beats of biology shape our bodies. This episode was produced with help from Molly Webster and Tracie Hunte. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.