Washington, D.C., September 9, 2011 – An endangered Short-tailed Albatross was killed by a longline fishing boat off the coast of Oregon in April 2011, according to a report recently released by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council. This is the first bycatch of a Short-tailed Albatross to be observed in the Pacific Northwest. The report was prepared by NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and is part of a larger risk assessment report currently in preparation on the effects of West Coast groundfish fisheries on endangered seabirds, fish, mammals, and turtles.

Thousands of miles of fishing lines, carrying hundreds of millions of hooks, are set by longliners throughout the world’s oceans each year. Albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, and fulmars are killed when they become attracted to the bait as the lines are set, and either swallow the hooks or become snagged and pulled under the sea to drown. Longlining is considered a significant threat to many seabird species around the globe, and may be slowing the recovery of the Short-tailed Albatross.

“The Short-tailed Albatross once perched on the very brink of extinction due to the feather trade, and its population remains small today. Fishing boat observers only witness a fraction of the actual bird bycatch that occurs in the fisheries of the North Pacific, so the documented death of even a single bird is cause for concern,” said Dr. Jessica Hardesty Norris, Director of American Bird Conservancy’s Seabird Program.

As a result of the seabird death, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has initiated consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) under the Endangered Species Act. Section 7 of the Act mandates that any federal entity undertaking actions that may impact endangered species must consult with FWS.

“Given the known occurrence of Short-tailed Albatrosses in Pacific Coast waters, and the documented bycatch of its near relative, the Black-footed Albatross there, we have to ask why this ESA consultation process was not initiated prior to the death of this bird. Lack of consultation left the fisheries vulnerable to prosecution for the illegal take of an endangered species,” said Norris.

The commercial U.S. fishing industry has been broadly receptive to new techniques and technologies that reduce the tragic bycatch death of seabirds, such as the use of bird-scaring (tori) lines that keep birds away from baited hooks as they are being set. Fishermen themselves encouraged the introduction of mandatory regulations that resulted in massive reductions in seabird bycatch in Alaska and Hawai′i. By contrast, no such clear guidance or mandatory mitigation measures exist in the Pacific groundfish fishery. Instead, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council has relied on voluntary efforts by the fleets.

Some West Coast fleets have been proactive in trying to avoid albatross bycatch. For instance, the boats of the Fishing Vessel Owners Association (FVOA) agreed to work with experts from the Washington Sea Grant School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences to design bird-scaring devices years ago. The organization now asks all its vessels to use tori lines voluntarily, even where they are not required. FVOA has requested that the Pacific Fishery Management Council implement Alaska-style tori line regulations for the West Coast as soon as possible.

“Albatross bycatch benefits no one, and our fleets are very interested in minimizing any negative impact on seabirds,” said Robert Alverson, Executive Director of the FVOA in Seattle.

Following ESA consultations, there will likely be mandatory mitigation measures on the fishery, following which, FWS will issue a take permit for a limited number of Short-tailed Albatrosses in future years. Official observers on board fishing boats will monitor take. Even when bycatch avoidance measures are in place, some bycatch can occur. If the allotted observed number under such a take permit is exceeded, the fishery is reviewed and faces modifications, including closures.

“At a minimum, effective seabird bycatch avoidance must be mandated for all longliners in the Pacific groundfish fishery, along with an adequate number of onboard observers to monitor take. In addition, the risk assessment report now being produced by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, which will provide an excellent scientific basis for managing the fishery, needs to be updated on a regular basis – every three to five years. This will help ensure that the fishery is managed with the best available data,” said Norris.

This bycatch event will also provide additional momentum to the ongoing efforts to reduce seabird mortality in fisheries. A FWS-NMFS program to distribute free tori lines to Alaskan fisherman was recently extended to West Coast longline fishermen. In this pilot program, Washington Sea Grant conducted port-to-port outreach in Washington and Oregon and facilitated the delivery of over 200 tori lines and best-practice information to tribal and federally-managed fishermen. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission is poised to build a new batch of bird-scaring lines and distribute them to West Coast fleet.

The Short-tailed Albatross was once the most abundant of the North Pacific albatross species, numbering more than a million birds. Its population was devastated by feather hunting at the turn of the 20th Century, and by the late 1940s was thought to be extinct. In the early 1950s, ten pairs were discovered breeding on Torishima, Japan. Through conservation efforts, the population has now reached over 3,000 individuals. For the last five years, the Short-tailed Albatross Recovery Team, an international group of collaborators, has been working on establishing another breeding colony elsewhere that is safe from Torishima’s potential volcanic activity and other problems.

ABC has campaigned to end seabird deaths from longlining in U.S. fisheries since the mid-90s. Thanks to publications such as ABC’s report: Sudden Death on the High Seas – Longline Fishing, a Global Catastrophe for Seabirds and subsequent advocacy efforts by ABC and others seabird deaths in Hawai’i and Alaska are down by up to 85%.

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