Will the World Adopt Sustainable Longline Fishing Practices?
The U.S. is setting the standard for ecologically sustainable longline fishing. Now it's time to make sure the rest of the world gets onboard.
When the third set is in we have our daily quota of 4,000 pounds--without killing or even catching another species.
There's no bycatch problem with this kind of longlining because the anchors sink the hooks to the ocean floor before the few diving birds in the area can grab the bait, because non-target fish can be released alive, and because there are relatively few sea turtles off New England.
But other longliners can face daunting challenges. The last thing they want is to waste hooks and fishing time on non-targets, so they're apt to be receptive to mitigation methods. "We try to extract ideas from fishermen and sometimes move those ideas in different directions, working with them on their boats," Melvin says. "We get them involved in a problem-solving process. I really wanted to zero in on streamers, fine-tuning the design to make it more effective. Off South Africa there were several albatross species we were concerned about. They couldn't reach the bait, but white-chinned petrels would bring it up and get mobbed by the albatrosses, which would then get hooked and drown."
So working with Japanese boats in a major study from 2008 to 2010, Melvin's team and the fishermen figured out a way to extend the streamers, and they lowered the hooks beyond the streamers by placing weights on the branch lines that hung off the main longline. This, combined with night fishing, virtually eliminated bycatch. Melvin says these innovations seem to be catching on well with Asian fleets and are now accepted as best practices.
Off Alaska, longliners targeting Pacific cod, sablefish, and halibut were killing huge numbers of seabirds, including critically endangered short-tailed albatrosses. With no large deep-diving petrels in the Northern Hemisphere, Melvin's team was able to reduce bird bycatch by 80 percent with its standard streamer design. On the U.S. West Coast the team is teaching streamer use to U.S. sablefish longliners operating about 20 miles out, where the continental shelf falls away and black-footed and Laysan albatrosses feed.
Most of the remaining problems are with foreign and illegal vessels operating in the Southern Hemisphere, home to most albatrosses. With minor exceptions, these birds breed at mid or high latitudes, but they can feed thousands of miles from their nests. For instance, BirdLife International has tracked wandering albatrosses on foraging trips that last 22 days and span 2,237 miles from the Antarctic to the tropics. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's beloved poem, it was probably a wandering albatross, patrolling the southern fringe of its range, that the ancient mariner dispatched with his crossbow.
Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses fly from Hawaii to Southern California to gorge on spawning squid that pack in around the Channel Islands. Now much of this critical feeding area is off-limits to squid fishermen because it's part of a 318-square-mile network of "marine protected areas," established under California's Marine Life Protection Act of 1999. "Ten percent of U.S. land is protected, and less than one percent of the ocean," declares Mike Sutton, director of Audubon California. "We figured it was time to change that."
The world's largest marine protected area--the 140,000-square-mile Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Monument, established by President George W. Bush in 2006--has significantly reduced bycatch of birds, turtles, and fish by excluding all commercial fishermen (foreign vessels included), of which the majority were longliners. And the 10 islands protected by the monument are vital breeding habitat for albatrosses.
Sea-level rise from global warming compounds the threats from longlining. For example, in the winter of 2011 storms flooded the same Hawaiian islands protected by President Bush, destroying 30,200 black-footed albatross nests and 254,000 Laysan albatross nests.
Even if humans are able to reverse global warming, it will take time that imperiled seabirds don't have. But as the United States has demonstrated, stopping longline bycatch is something that can be done in months. Congress now needs to take us the final distance and, as Mike Daulton observes, bring other countries up to our standards by joining ACAP.
Send an Audubon Action Alert to your legislators, demanding that they vote for U.S. ACAP membership. For information on longline bycatch and to help limit it, support the following groups: Sea Turtle Conservancy; Wild Oceans; PEW Charitable Trusts; The Billfish Foundation; Shark Advocates International