Longlines Killing Pacific Seabirds at Record Rate
NOAA Admits Official Counts Significantly Underestimate True By-Catch Toll
Washington, DC — Longline fishing fleets in the Pacific Ocean are killing and maiming more seabirds at the highest rates recorded, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The growing loss of seabirds caught on hooks or tangled in fishing gear appears to signal that National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) mitigation plan implemented a decade ago has not curbed this unintended harvest.
Fishing fleets in oceans across the globe utilize longlines dangling thousands of hooks on lines at various depths. This and other indiscriminate fishing methods have sparked concerns about the accidental capture of non-target species such as marine mammals, sea turtles and seabirds. Since it implemented by-catch reduction plans, NOAA has been tallying “interactions” with non-target species over the past decade.
Albatrosses, fulmars, boobies and other seabirds grab the bait on hooks towed behind fishing boats. They are often impaled on barbed hooks or become snarled in lines or other gear. If unable to free themselves, they are dragged below the surface and drowned. Even if released, they are often fatally injured. NOAA tallies for Hawaii-based longline fleets –
- Show a five to ten-fold rise in the rate in which seabirds are taken over the past decade (2004-13) in shallow-set longlines in which all fleets have coverage by fishing observers;
- Understate by between one-quarter and one-half the actual seabird “take” on fleets which have observer coverage; and
- Are incomplete for deep-set longline fleets, which have low rates of observer coverage. A NOAA study estimated that the number of seabirds taken in 2010 were likely nearly four-times the official totals (220 versus 57 “interactions” reflected in the official reports).
“NOAA implemented its ‘National Plan of Action for the Reduction of Incidental Catch of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries’ back in 2003 but these numbers indicate that the plan needs more work,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, who obtained emails and other records from NOAA under the Freedom of Information Act. “Unfortunately, the records do not reflect any NOAA plans, other than maintaining carcass counts, for upgrading seabird safeguards.”
NOAA reports on marine mammal and sea turtle losses from Hawaii-based longline fishing do not show similar upward trends. However, the in-depth study of deep-set by-catch in 2010 estimated that more than three-times as many sea turtles were taken than the official reports (23 versus 7 in the official reports).
“In-depth analysis suggests that the true extent of seabird harvests is significantly and systematically underestimated,” added Ruch, noting that many of the seabirds killed in Pacific longlines are threatened species, such as the Black-footed, Laysan and Short-tailed Albatrosses. “Rising seabird by-catch may be yet another symptom of the intensified competition for food on increasingly exploited oceans.”