Threatened and endangered albatrosses in the South Atlantic are getting a break as British Antarctic Survey (BAS) seabird ecologist Richard Phillips has received funding to put newly developed radar-detecting tags on the seabirds. The tags show when and where the birds are scanned by ship navigation radar, and could lead to greater protection.

"Bycatch" is a word used by the fishing industry to refer to incidents where fishing vessels go out after one type of fish and then accidentally haul in some other species of fish, crustacean, mollusc, or even mammal or bird. It's a worldwide problem that affect legal fishing, but is exacerbated by illegal fishing, resulting in about 100,000 albatrosses being killed every year.

It may seem odd that fishermen could end up catching a soaring seabird, but albatrosses find offal a delicacy and have a habit of swooping down and grabbing the bait put out by line fisherman. Since 19 species of albatrosses are threatened and two are endangered, this is a serious problem

To gain a better understanding of how the albatross interact with vessels and to find out how widespread illegal fishing is in the South Atlantic, Phillips has been given part of a £3.75 million (US$4.9 million) award by the British government to the UK Overseas Territories to tag adult and juvenile albatrosses on South Georgia Island. This will allow scientists to track where the birds go, when they are scanned by a vessel's radar, how close they get to the vessel, and how long they stay in its vicinity. This data will be broken down by sex, age, and breeding status.

According to BAS, this information will not only help scientists to better understand albatross behavior, but also the risks of different birds to bycatch, the presence of illegal fishing vessels, and bycatch hot spots. In addition, it will help to produce more effective conservation policies and regulations.

"We've known seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels are vulnerable to bycatch, particularly since the mid 1990s," says Phillips. "What is exciting about this project is the use of new technology, radar-detecting tags, and 3D acceleration loggers. These technologies will allow us to gain a greater insight into how birds behave when foraging at sea behind fishing vessels and provide the first indication of the level of illegal fishing in the region. This collaborative project with BirdLife International will gather much-needed information to help inform policies to protect seabirds."

Source: BAS