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The unexpected consequences of doing the right thing

Friday 6 September 2019

While captures of seabirds have decreased with improved offal and waste control practises aboard the deepwater fleet they appear to have increased seabird captures in trawl nets.

The seafood industry is a significant supporter and participant in Southern Seabirds Solutions, a New Zealand trust charged with protecting the seabirds in New Zealand waters and beyond. New Zealand is considered the seabird capital of the world – 95 seabirds species breed here and a third of those species are native to New Zealand.

That is partly because New Zealand spreads from the sub-tropical Kermadecs in the North to the sub-Antarctic islands in the South and its extensive coastline makes it a safe place to forage and breed. However, that makes New Zealand one of the most challenging places in the world to avoid birds while catching fish.

Mitigating seabird captures is now embedded in both the inshore and deepwater fleet culture, with fleet and vessel-specific seabird mitigation plans, tori lines to scare the birds away from the nets and lines, weighted hooks that sink the bait faster, and setting at night.

New methods are being trialled. Hook shielding devices such as Hookpod enclose the hook and a pressure switch opens the capsule once it reaches a certain depth. An underwater bait setter trial is now underway. This pneumatically propels baited hooks underwater in a capsule and releases them below the diving depth of seabirds.

Understanding seabirds’ behaviour is key to effective mitigation and increased control of fish waste over the past decade has seen a huge reduction in birds being killed by colliding with trawl warps.

In 2005, only 30 percent of the fleet had onboard fishmeal facilities and the others discarded waste overboard. In 2019, some 65 percent of vessels have fishmeal facilities and 30 percent carry a mincer for waste which is then discarded in a controlled and infrequent manner.

However, doing the right thing around fish waste has had consequences.

Previously, most seabirds would sit on the water beyond the net and wait for offal and waste to float back to them. Now deprived of this food they are taking greater risks, by standing on the net and diving through the mesh to find food. This has seen a corresponding rise in birds being caught in the trawl net itself.

This year, Southern Seabirds launched a call for ideas to find a solution to net captures and the first stage report is out. While the ideas presented are yet to be assessed and graded for overall practicality, they covered areas such as reducing cues to follow vessels, deterrents to keep birds away from the net and reducing harm if they did get near the net.

Reducing cues such as winch noise and masking meal plant smells, and deterrents such as lasers, net water sprayers and long-range acoustic devices were suggested.   Ideas for keeping seabirds away from the net included a new net design that reduced ‘stickers’ the small fish entangled in the mesh, or an on-deck mechanised suction system to remove stickers from the mesh.

Stage two will see the ideas assessed and any with potential moved to testing phase.

Ultimately, the industry would like solutions embedded into vessel design and some progress is being made. The Moana vessel Santy Maria has a below-water waste discharge system and Australia’s Austral Fishing has underwater line setters on its long liners.   

However, despite great strides in intent and innovation, too many seabirds are still being caught but, those who would suggest the fishing industry is not committed to continuing to reduce these, are not paying attention.

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