Antipodean albatross (Photo: Mark Fraser/via iNaturalist (CC0))
Antipodean albatross (Photo: Mark Fraser/via iNaturalist (CC0))

ScienceJune 21, 2024

A ‘generational win’ for NZ’s seabirds

Antipodean albatross (Photo: Mark Fraser/via iNaturalist (CC0))
Antipodean albatross (Photo: Mark Fraser/via iNaturalist (CC0))

New rules to protect seabirds from fishing will help Aotearoa’s threatened albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters.

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The 145 seabird species that frequent New Zealand waters will have stronger protection from capture on fishing lines, with new rules announced by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) last week.

The rules for the surface longline fishing industry, which come into effect on 1 October, require fishers to use either a hook-shielding device, or implement three key techniques simultaneously to reduce the risk of accidental capture. Under the previous rules, fishers only had to use two techniques.

“Fishers don’t go out to catch seabirds and these measures will help ensure that the surface longline fleet have the best chance of avoiding seabirds that are trying to sneak a feed off their hooks,” says Emma Taylor, director of fisheries management at Fisheries New Zealand.

The strengthened protections come after a review found that, despite voluntary measures, seabird bycatch rates remain consistently high.

For Stephanie Borrelle, seabird scientist at Birdlife International, the decision came as a huge relief. “This is such a beacon of hope for seabirds,” she says. “We’ve fought so hard to get a logical, science-informed decision.”

Westland petrel (Photo: Christoph Moning/via iNaturalist (CC BY 4.0))

‘Stronger-than-expected’ protection

Fisheries officials were considering a less stringent approach to regulation, Newsroom’s Marc Daalder reported back in February. The “stronger-than-expected” rules come in the wake of data from onboard cameras, which revealed albatross interactions with fishing vessels were 3.5 times higher than previously reported by fishers. “Insights from the camera programme” informed the rule change, alongside scientific modelling and public feedback, Taylor says.

With both onboard cameras and “three out of three” protection measures, Borrelle predicts a “demonstrable reduction in bycatch” that will “translate to populations in a few years, particularly the shearwaters and petrels.”

No longer an albatross around New Zealand’s neck

Ninety-six seabird species breed in Aotearoa and many more hang out in our ocean territory, making our corner of the South Pacific the seabird capital of the world. But it’s a wildlife treasure trove in trouble: 90% of resident seabirds are at risk or threatened with extinction.

Among them, the “nationally critical” Antipodean and Gibson’s albatrosses have become poster birds for the threat posed by fishing bycatch. They’re particularly prone to getting caught – and dying – in the surface longline fishery.

Without intervention, the Antipodean albatross is predicted to enter an “extinction spiral” and disappear by 2050. Now, with the new rules, Borrelle foresees a reduction in albatross captures by the domestic fleet – but also an opportunity to pressure other countries and international fishing organisations to up their game, too.

“Because of satellite tracking, we know they’re going further out into the Tasman and high seas, and they’re overlapping and interacting with foreign-flagged vessels,” Borrelle explains. New Zealand has long been advocating for stronger seabird protections – like the “three out of three” approach – in international fora, she says, “but because we weren’t doing it in our domestic fishery, it’s hard to take us seriously.”

Now, New Zealand will walk the talk, and show what’s possible. “This is a generational win. I’m really proud of New Zealand for doing this.”

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