By Nicole Perman
Until recently, it seemed as though the short-tailed albatross would not be able to escape extinction. These endangered seabirds have been threatened first by hunting, and more recently by overfishing in the North Pacific and Bering Seas, and by their less-than-ideal primary breeding ground – a small volcanically active island called Tori-shima, located off the southern coast of Japan.
As you can likely imagine, fishing hooks and volcanic eruptions make for a deadly combination, and albatross populations consequently took a nose dive. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end here. Thanks to the implementation of seabird deterrent devices, called streamers, short-tailed albatross have been making a comeback.
Who doesn’t like a good underdog story?
Streamers Save Seabirds
Streamers, often made of long strips of plastic tubing, have been used successfully by fishing fleets to keep birds, such as the short-tailed albatross, at bay. While streamers may look like nothing more than plastic strips waving in the wind to the human eye, the albatross are fooled.
To these seabirds, a row of streamers appears as a barrier. This illusion of a wall deters them from diving down to snag the bait, ultimately saving them from the hooks that have claimed so many of their kin.
In fact, Alaska’s hook and line fleet – the first to implement streamers in the Bering Sea – found them to be 88 to 100 percent successful at keeping birds away from the hooks. The impact of these devices did not go unnoticed. Compelled by their success, WWF (World Wildlife Fund) made introducing them to other fishing hot spots around the world a priority. The Kamchatka Peninsula, jutting off of the eastern coast of Siberia and bordered by the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea, was at the top of their list. (WWF’s project was reported previously in: Reducing Seabird Bycatch in Russian Fisheries.)
Despite the relative close proximity of WWF’s Arctic office in Anchorage, Alaska, and seeming ease of transferring a low-tech solution across the Bering Sea, WWF learned quickly that there were many obstacles that stood between them and implementing streamers abroad, starting when their first shipment of streamers was confiscated by Russian Customs in 2004.
Even once the streamers made it to Kamchatka, WWF faced another hurdle: How can fisherman be convinced to use them?
Streamers Save Seabirds… and Money Too
WWF and other conservationists were undoubtedly in support of streamers for what they accomplished for seabird populations, but the captains and crews needed some convincing that rigging their fleets with streamers was worth the hassle. Through a comparative study of boats using streamers versus boats without them, experts from WWF found that the fleet not using streamers lost approximately $840,000 annually.
So how is it that streamers save so much money? As previously demonstrated by the Alaskan fleet, when streamers are present, seabirds are less likely to dive for the bait. As a result, not only are seabirds spared from the fatal hooks, but the bait remains available for fish, making a greater harvest possible. Fishermen know well that more fish means more money, so the fleets of Kamchatka concluded that installing streamers and potentially saving that $840,000 was worth the extra elbow grease.
The streamers effort in Kamchatka has evolved into a sustainable conservation project. Today, at least one Kamchatka fishing company manufactures its own streamers and makes custom-fit improvements, such as adding steel davits for easier deployment of streamers off the back of the boat.
Most importantly, thanks in part to the commitment of WWF and the longline vessels now sporting streamers, short-tailed albatross numbers are on the rise around the Kamchatka Peninsula. In 2008, WWF researchers monitoring seabird bycatch spotted an average of only two albatross a day.
By 2013, these researchers witnessed an average of 13 a day, even spotting as many as 33. These counts suggest an over 500 percent increase in albatross seen in this area in just five years.
The Japanese Bird Migration Research Center has also confirmed the growth in this population, adding that banded short-tailed albatross from both Tori-shima and from Muko-jima Island – a new man-made, translocated colony – have been seen feeding in waters around Kamchatka in the Bering Sea.
Best of all, according to records kept by Russian fishery observers during the 2013 season, zero short-tailed albatross were reported as bycatch. Here’s to more continued success of streamers and keeping this streak alive in 2014 and the years to come.
WWF-U.S. received a grant for this work from the Lindblad-National Geographic Fund for Conservation, Research and Exploration in 2013. The Fund supports efforts to restore the health and productivity of the ocean, and to positively impact natural and human communities.