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A love of seabirds

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Debbie Hannan

For Gisborne skipper Matt Howden there is no more beautiful sight than a flock of cape pigeons. Matt knows a lot about seabirds and enjoys their company while at sea. He is a passionate advocate for educating his crew and the wider fishing community on the importance of protecting seabirds.

A cape pigeon. Image: Barry Baker

He grew up in Kaikoura, renowned for its seabirds, a region described as offering probably the best and most accessible pelagic birdwatching in the world. Matt’s first job was on a fishing charter vessel out of Kaikoura.

“I was always being asked ‘what is that bird or where do they come from’, so I thought I had better start remembering some information about these seabirds so I could confidently answer questions from the passengers,” Matt says.

He’s now based in Gisborne, fishing on the Pearler (owned by Gisborne Fisheries and Richard Kibblewhite) from Portland Island to Lottin Point, targeting a range of seafood from rock lobster to inshore species by set netting and lining. Over the years, he has seen some amazing seabird sights. “My favourite would have to be steaming home one evening, and as far as the eye could see were cape pigeons feeding on whitebait outside a local river mouth,” Matt says.

“There would have been thousands!” The cape pigeon (which is in fact a petrel) is a particular favourite of his. “I like this bird because for their size they are bloody cheeky, swooping in and stealing food out from under the nose of much bigger birds like the wandering royal albatross,” Matt says, with a smile.

This love of seabirds makes him acutely aware of the need to prevent their accidental capture. “Danger times vary on what technique of fishing we are using, but the danger times are mainly setting of the nets and hauling of the dahn (vertical drop) lines,” he says.

“When it comes to netting, it’s all about getting the net off the boat and under the surface as fast as possible. “This is done by multiple short nets and heavy weights on each end.

“There is very little danger (to seabirds) in lining for us. “We usually use dahn lines, as opposed to long lines because the practice is more suited to the bottom structure and species being targeted.

“It is also limits the amount of time the baited hooks are within striking distance of the birds. Matt has some simple advice to other fishermen wanting to prevent bird captures.

“It doesn’t need to cost a lot of money or the use of fancy equipment,” he explains.

“It’s just about being smart about what you do.

“For example, be aware of what’s going on, especially at times of heightened bird movement, like windy conditions.

“With longlining, the use of tori (bird scaring) lines is a simple and effective practice used when shooting (releasing) a line.

“Motivating my crew on seabird protection is all about explaining the massive role they have in our marine system.

“A little bit of insight into their importance seems to go a long way.”

Matt is also a keen recreational fisher. “When it comes to seabird safety, the key point is still the same – it’s about being smart and aware in what you’re doing,” he says.

“From what I’ve seen the fishing industry can take pride in its efforts of looking after our seabirds.”

He says several of his colleagues are taking all practical steps they can to ensure the sustainability of seabird populations.

“As long as we continue to educate I can see a great future for seabirds.” 

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