‘Albatross Cops’ Offer Bird’s-Eye-View on Illegal Fishing 


From pirates to poaching, keeping a careful eye on the open ocean has always been particularly challenging for land-dwellers like us.

Earth’s seascapes, which make up over 70 percent of the planet’s surface area, are vast, often-isolated and difficult to monitor: the practicalities and economics of patrolling huge areas in inhospitable conditions often prohibit effective coverage by authorities and concerned conservationists alike.

But the need to observe these areas more closely is becoming increasingly apparent. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing is a major driver of overfishing globally. It puts the food security of coastal communities at risk, and it’s also been linked with accounts of serious human rights violations and organized crime. 

Economically, the losses from IUU fishing are estimated to cost up to USD$36.4 billion per year – and because traceability at sea is so challenging, around a fifth of all the fish on the market today is likely to come from IUU sources. What’s more, as well as unsustainably harvesting the species they target, IUU fishers often catch large numbers of non-targeted species as bycatch, such as whales, dolphins and seabirds. This is because they don’t follow the bycatch mitigation measures that are legally required of vessels. 

In that context, a group of researchers at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and New Zealand ecological and atmospheric science research company Sextant Technology have come up with a novel, nature-based solution to getting better information on what’s going on at sea, which they’ve termed the “Ocean Sentinel” concept. Instead of shipping humans to far-flung parts of the ocean, the team decided to “collaborate” with creatures that are out there already; that range over huge areas; and that are particularly adept at locating fishing vessels: albatrosses. 

The giant yet endangered birds – 15 of the 22 albatross species are threatened with extinction – are especially attracted to fishing boats, because they love to scavenge for bait and offal, and their keen eyes can spot these vessels from over 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) away. Unfortunately, their enthusiasm also places them particularly at-risk for accidental capture by longliners who don’t follow mitigation measures.

In late 2018, the research team taped small, lightweight trackers on the backs of 169 wandering (Diomedea exulans) and Amsterdam (Diomedea amsterdamensis) albatrosses during breeding season on the remote Crozet, Kerguelen and Amsterdam Islands, in the Southern Indian Ocean. 

The trackers were equipped with both GPS and radar detectors. All vessels weighing 300 gross tons or more are required to use an Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal, which is linked to global databases via satellite. Sometimes AIS signals are lost unintentionally, such as when a boat passes through an area with weak satellite reception. However, missing AIS signals may also point to illegal activity, as a boat’s crew can turn off the device to make themselves and their actions difficult to detect.

When an albatross involved in the experiment came within five kilometers (around three miles) of a vessel, their tracker would pick up its radar, which all boats use regularly for navigation purposes and to avoid collisions. The tracker would then beam the boat’s coordinates via satellite to an online database, so the scientists could cross-check this with the AIS data, and thus surmise when they’d found an undeclared vessel – something they’d never been able to do before.

“This is the first time that we’ve been able to get an estimate of the extent of undeclared fisheries,” said Alexandre Corbeau, a PhD student at CNRS and one of the co-authors of the paper. 

Over a period of six months, the birds covered a total area of 47 million square kilometres (29 million square miles) – around five times the size of Europe – and the scientists recorded and collated the data that they found. They also transmitted location data on any undeclared vessels they found to French marine authorities for follow-up.

The results were astounding. Of the 353 vessels that the trackers detected, 28% had no AIS signal: 25.8% of all those inside countries’ exclusive economic zones, and 36.9% of those in international waters. The researchers were taken by surprise: “no one thought it would be so high,” said lead author and CNRS marine ornithologist Henri Weimerskirch, in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine about the research.  

Critics have asked whether the albatrosses’ new role could make them a target for unscrupulous fishers wanting to remain “below the radar.” But Corbeau says that’s unlikely for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s very difficult to spot the feather-colored loggers on the birds’ backs. Secondly, the loggers can locate the boat from several kilometers away, so by the time a fisher sees the albatross, the coordinates will already have been logged. Thirdly, there are usually about 2,000 to 3,000 birds flying behind a fishing boat, so finding albatross among these would be very difficult. And fourth, the areas albatross patrol tend to be in very rough, windy waters, making them even more difficult to spot.

“An illegal fishing boat trying to avoid detection would have to pay someone to shoot albatrosses all day; it’s just not possible,” said Corbeau. What’s more, “even if they were able to successfully shoot some albatrosses, they would already have been detected,” he said, “and if we can catch one illegal boat, we can save more than a hundred albatrosses per year that would likely have been killed as bycatch by that vessel.”

Since concluding their “proof of concept,” and publishing a paper about it in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) earlier this year, the team has begun working on several new projects with fishing authorities in New Zealand, Hawai’i and the United Kingdom. They’re hoping to roll the concept out more widely – including exploring the use of other marine species such as turtles and sharks, as well as different kinds of seabirds.

“That means we have to miniaturize the technology,” said Corbeau. “For an albatross it’s no problem; the logger is less than 1% of its weight. But for smaller species, we have to develop a lighter logger. Theoretically, though, it could be used in all the oceans around the world, and with all the species that are in contact with boats.”

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