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Tuna fishing kills an albatross every 5 minutes

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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wandering albatrossEvery time you open a can of tuna, an albatross dies.

Okay, that’s not exactly true, but albatrosses and other seabirds are increasingly endangered by commercial tuna fishing, according to a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and BirdLife International. The problem has gotten so bad that albatrosses are killed on fishing lines at a rate of one every five minutes, according to scientists representing the U.K.-based organizations.

The report has been released to coincide with a meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), headquartered in Madrid, which takes place in Brazil this week to discuss fishing quotas for Mediterranean tuna and swordfish.

According to RSPB and BirdLife, 37 bird species are highly at risk from commercial ocean fishing. Sixteen of those species are already officially endangered, and six of the most at-risk species are albatrosses. The birds get tangled in longline hooks, which are baited with squid and other tasty morsels. The two organizations state that “for many species, this is their greatest extinction threat.”

Albatross expert Cleo Small is attending the ICCAT meeting on behalf of RSPB and BirdLife. “The populations of albatrosses are declining faster in the South Atlantic than any other ocean,” she said in a prepared statement. “This situation is needless, because the technology exists to prevent these deaths.”

One of these “technologies” is remarkably simple: the tori, or streamer, line. Basically, fishing crews run lines of ribbons from the stern of a vessel, which create a curtain above fishing lines to deter albatrosses from coming into the so-called “danger zone.” Other solutions include using heavier weights, dyeing bait blue so birds can’t see it in the water, or setting lines at night, when birds are less likely to be awake.

At least one albatross species, the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans), has lost half its population since the 1960s. Small blames the decline on longline fishing. Other species at risk include the Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena) and the Balearic shearwater (Puffinus mauretanicus), both of which are critically endangered.

Related to the albatross issue, ICCAT this week will also be discussing the fate of the critically endangered bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus), a highly prized delicacy that is rapidly being fished into extinction. Expect more news on that front soon.
Image: Wandering albatross, via Wikipedia





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  1. 1. waynegoode 5:57 pm 11/10/2009

    Starting an article with a statement that is not true (by your own admission) is not a good way to build the confidence of your readers.

    Link to this
  2. 2. candide 7:30 pm 11/10/2009

    I thought science "proved" their statements, this article only vaguely quotes others.

    Is this a science site or the Enquirer?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Heidi_2009 6:30 pm 11/12/2009

    It is also important to note that canned tuna is NOT caught by longline vessels, but by purse seine vessels which encircle tuna with nets and does not result in the bycatch of seabirds. Longline-caught tuna is a much higher grade of tuna and is sold as fresh fish, mostly for the sashimi markets. This type of fishing does result in large amounts of bycatch in foreign fisheries. The U.S. already mandates the use of tori lines in the Pacific at least. This is a bad example of journalism, if you can even call it that.

    Link to this
  4. 4. slothman 5:43 pm 02/3/2010

    these birds arent getting tangled, but are diving on the baited hooks, during the set. They are hooked and drowned this way. The use of streamers spook the birds and they are deterred from diving on them. I worked on tuna longliners, it was amazing how this cheap and easy fix worked so well.

    Link to this

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