Kiwi Ingenuity

A fleet of inventions aims to protect albatrosses from harm

John Bennett, who longlines for Patagonian toothfish (a.k.a. Chilean sea bass) in Antarctica's waters and for bluenose in New Zealand's is one of a growing number of advocates of "seabird-smart fishing." Bennett uses noise cannons and long curtains of fluttering streamers to scare birds away from his hooked and baited lines, which can be lethal, and he weights the lines so that they sink before birds can get at them. He also sets the lines at night, when fewer birds are feeding. "I don't like catching birds," Bennett says. "I don't like killing anything unnecessarily."

Other measures employed by like-minded longliners include setting lines through an underwater chute (to keep them off the sea surface) and using thawed baits (which sink faster than frozen ones). Some fishers dye baits blue to make them harder for birds to see. Another innovation is a special longline rope with a lead core, which, like Bennett's weighted lines, sinks before birds can get to it. Such methods are effective; seabird deaths dropped by 95 percent in New Zealand's longline tuna fishery since they were adopted.

Trawlers, who fish with nets, employ different approaches. The most commonly used innovation is something called a Brady Bird Baffler, which uses weighted lines hanging from booms on each side of a boat's stern to make a boat look larger and, in so doing, keep birds away from the deadly trawl lines that run out from it. Then there's the Carefree Cunning Contraption, which clips over the wires and makes them look, from a distance, like large, hairy caterpillars. The "contraption" makes wires more visible to the birds and brushes them away if they get too close.

Many in the industry believe that the best way to protect seabirds from commercial fishing fatalities is to reduce the incentive. Most fishing boats process their catch at sea, generating tons of discarded fish and fish parts that get dumped over the side. To a seabird, a vessel trailing a slick of such tidbits must look like a floating fast-food restaurant.

Some newer vessels convert fish waste to fishmeal at sea (for later sale), vastly reducing what gets thrown overboard. But older vessels can even reduce bird casualties by not discharging waste while setting or hauling lines, when the danger to birds is greatest. Malcolm McNeill, who manages several longline vessels that operate in the Antarctic fishery, says that no seabirds have been caught by New Zealand toothfish vessels in the past seven years. The reason? "Nothing is put over the side of the boat," he says.

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