Korean fishermen deaf to the plight of the albatross

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The Independent Online

Dramatic pictures taken of dead albatrosses killed by fishing vessels operating in South African waters have highlighted the dire plight of these endangered birds.

The photographs show some of the many dozens of albatrosses that have been caught in the hooks of the longlines used to catch tuna off the South African coast.

Longlines towed behind fishing vessels are up to 60 miles long and are baited with tens of thousands of hooks which can accidentally snare seabirds.

Samantha Petersen of BirdLife International said one study found that just 10 fishing vessels hooked and drowned at least 1,400 seabirds in the past few months. Some 600 of these were albatrosses.

"This is a prime example of how longlining, which takes place world-wide, affects birds around the globe," Ms Petersen said. "There is little requirement for tuna and other longliners to take measures to reduce by-catch deaths on the high seas."

The study, carried out by BirdLife International and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), attempted to gauge the scale of the problem by investigating Korean-registered fishing boats operating from South Africa.

"Our research shows that for every fishing day, Korean-flagged tuna longline vessels fishing in South African waters kill around 10 albatrosses, sometimes more," Ms Petersen said.

The birds' slaughter continues despite the fact that South Africa has signed an international agreement on protecting albatrosses and that fishing operators are bound by the terms of their operating licences.

There are 21 species of albatross in the world and 19 of them are threatened with extinction, largely as a result of longline fishing. BirdLife International estimates that around the world 100,000 albatrosses are killed by longlines each year.

"The world hasn't got an infinite number of these magnificent birds. It is unthinkable for mankind to stand by and let these birds slip into oblivion when we have the means to save them. All that seems to be lacking is the will," Ms Petersen said.

The RSPB and BirdLife International are trying to place experts on board fishing vessels to offer advice to the crews on how to avoid or at least minimise catching seabirds by mistake.

One method is to attach streamer lines adjacent to the longlines to scare away albatrosses and other seabirds, said Ben Sullivan, co-ordinator of BirdLife's Global Seabird Programme.

"Fishermen would far rather catch fish than seabirds and Operation Ocean Task Force offers a real opportunity to help them achieve this," Dr Sullivan said.

Longline fishing became popular in the 1980s as a way of catching high-value fish such as the bluefin tuna and the Patagonian toothfish. The danger occurs when hooks are dropped into or lifted out of the water and can be seen by scavenging seabirds.

"Many cheap and readily implemented solutions have been, and are being developed. Employing these will be of benefit to the fishermen themselves because the more bait eaten by birds, the smaller the catch of fish," a BirdLife spokesman said.

In addition to using plastic streamers to scare seabirds away, BirdLife is asking fishing vessels to set longlines using underwater tubes, tying weights around the lines so they sink more quickly, dying the bait blue to put birds off eating it, or setting the lines at night when most albatrosses do not feed.

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