Saving the Albatross: update

The driving force behind the Underwater Bait Setting Capsule, Dr. Graham Robertson, gives us the latest update on the project, which aims to help avoid thousands of needless albatross deaths each year: “The underwater bait setter is designed to prevent albatross and petrel mortality in tuna and swordfish fisheries worldwide. This year marks the seventh year the machine has been under development. Progress has been slower than desired, but this is not unexpected with a brand new technology being built from the ground up. “We have trialled two prototype versions in the Uruguayan swordfish fishery under sea conditions ranging to the extreme. Success has been mixed, partly due to mechanical issues that emerged and partly due to circumstances in Uruguay that were (and are) beyond our control. We intended to return to Uruguay this year to complete the experimentation, but now must defer until 2014. The reason for the delay is that the Uruguayan government has set aside key areas of the fishing grounds for oil exploration, which is a threat to the economic viability of the fishery. “The upshot is that we’ll spend 2013 working the machine hard in the Australian tuna fishery to prove operational reliability and at the same time work to resolve the situation in Uruguay or find another collaborator. Our preference is to return to Uruguay in mid 2014 to complete the formal experimentation, ideally with the option of chartering the fishing vessel  outright and to be able to operate in a manner compatible with oil exploration. “Despite the inevitable setbacks, people interested in saving albatrosses should take heart. Although more hard data is required, the evidence thus far is very positive: setting baited hooks 10m underwater will eliminate albatross and petrel mortality (thus far no birds have been caught at this depth). Our experiments will determine mortality frequencies at shallower depths too, such as 8m and 6m, so that longline fishermen operating in areas of oceans of different risk status to seabirds can be provided with options, if deemed appropriate. “In addition to the scientific evidence gathered to date it is important to appreciate that we have logic on our side. Albatrosses (black-browed albatrosses, specifically) are incapable of diving deeper than 5m, so setting hooks 6m deep will eliminate their mortality. By the same token, the capture of white-chinned petrels, which are one of the most difficult species in the world to deter, will be impossible if hooks are deployed to 11m deep, because this depth exceeds the maximum dive depth of these birds. “Our ultimate aim is to implement underwater bait setters in fisheries with deleterious impacts on seabirds. That is, to be able to change fishing practices so fishermen can continue to catch fish and do so by avoiding the unnecessary deaths of thousands of seabirds. If we can achieve that outcome the conservation benefits will be enormous. Recent gear changes in the Patagonian toothfish longline fishery off southern Chile reduced the mortality of local black-browed albatrosses from about 1500 birds a year to zero in the space of two years. This has unleashed a rapid population recovery, which is currently averaging nearly 7% a year. This example is a testament to the recuperative powers of albatrosses once unnatural (human-induced) levels of mortality are removed, and encourages the continuation of efforts to develop new seabird-friendly fishing gear, such as the underwater bait setter, and implement these devices in the world’s tuna fisheries.” For more information, visit the official Underwater Bait Setting Capsule website

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