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Conservation On The High Seas: Mainstreaming Biodiv. Into Intern. Policies And Fishing Practices


Accidental capture (“bycatch”) of a wide range of non-target species is a significant issue for the fishing industry, and for marine biodiversity. Bycatch has a severe impact on many charismatic marine species such as albatrosses, cetaceans, sharks and sea turtles, which often cross vast distances and can be highly vulnerable to bycatch. Every year longline and trawl fishing fleets kill an estimated 300,000 seabirds, driving some albatross species towards extinction.

Bycatch often takes place in international waters, making international collaboration essential. There are around 20 Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs), which have a central role in finding appropriate management measures to fishing. Each RFMO operates under its own formal agreement. However, all have duties outlined under the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, under which fishing states must cooperate to set appropriate conservation and management measures. These are especially for migratory species, including some of the most highly-prized fish stocks, such as tuna.

A review of the RFMO’s environment approach carried out by BirdLife International in 2004 found that only the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources was effectively tackling bycatch. BirdLife International set about engaging strategically with RFMOs, as well as intergovernmental agreements to mainstream seabird conservation into fishing on the high seas. In the subsequent decade, there has been progress and RFMOs and fishing fleets have recognised the bycatch problem and adopted various measures to reduce it.

For information on how BirdLife International addresses the bycatch issue in areas under national jurisdiction, consult the case study “The Albatross Task Force: Finding Solutions to Save Ocean Wanderers”.

Problem, challenge or context: 

Efforts to reduce bycatch directly support international commitments to conserve biodiversity, including through managing and harvesting fish stocks sustainably (Aichi Target 6). These commitments proved to be key entry points for BirdLife, enabling them to support and leverage change in national and international policies. The Aichi Target 6 further state that fisheries should have no significant adverse impacts on threatened species, which is the case for most of the seabird species that are currently being a target of bycatch on longlining, trawl or gillnet fishing.

Parties to the CBD are requested to translate the Aichi Targets into national targets, as appropriated, when developing NBSAPs. Countries can report on progress towards these objectives, but also on conservation measures that responds to commitments made under other international agreement, such as RFMOs of which the state is a member. The following are other examples of international guidance that Parties could link to when implementing and reporting against NBSAPs:

• The voluntary FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, adopted in 1995, consists of a collection of principles, goals and elements for action, complemented by Technical Guidelines for Responsible Fisheries, including on reducing bycatch. In 1998 the FAO developed the International Plan of Action for Reducing Incidental Catch of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries (IPOA-Seabirds) and a similar plan for sharks (IPOA-Sharks).

• The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) is a multilateral agreement under the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). It came into force in 2004 and as of 2016 has 13 member countries.

Specific elements of components: 

Bycatch is considered the primary threat to albatrosses - in longline fisheries albatrosses and petrels get caught on baited hooks on the surface of the sea as the longlines are being set. On trawl vessels, albatrosses can be killed by warp cables, or can become entangled in the nets. Seabirds are long-lived, and slow to mature and reproduce, making their populations especially vulnerable. Half of seabird species are declining, and 15 of the 22 albatross species are Globally Threatened.

Governance and management of these distant waters is a major challenge as no single nation has jurisdiction on the high seas. Vessels under various flags jostle for dwindling stocks. This is why international cooperation is critical, including by the RFMOs, to address the seabird bycatch problem effectively.

The action taken:

The efforts to mainstream seabird conservation into fishing on the high seas have two main strands. First, BirdLife International and ACAP work to strengthen international policy, including in RFMOs. Second, they support specific distant-water fleets to encourage uptake of simple measures that significantly reduce seabird bycatch if correctly implemented.
Actions at the international level are as follows.

• Ever since the 2004 review, BirdLife has worked closely with RFMOs, their working groups and member governments, to press for monitoring and mitigation of seabird bycatch. They prioritised the five tuna RFMOs whose combined geographical scope coincides with four-fifths of global albatross distribution.

• BirdLife, often in collaboration with national scientists, gathers evidence, analyses this and presents it to the RFMO scientific working groups, This includes, for example, identification of areas of greatest seabird bycatch risk, and results from trials of bycatch mitigation measures. This has led to proposals for seabird conservation measures at RFMO Commission meetings, where the decision-making happens.

• Tools to help decision making include the Global Seabird Tracking Database, which now holds information on over 100 species. This helped map the overlap between fisheries and populations to prioritise areas for seabird mitigation measures, while data from the Albatross Task Force provided evidence of bycatch solutions.

• BirdLife plays an active role in all ACAP Working Groups. Jointly with ACAP, BirdLife led the production of bycatch mitigation factsheets, and identified Internationally Important Sites for ACAP species.

Action with distant water fleets has focused on countries with significant, far-reaching longline fisheries:

• BirdLife supports development of National Plans of Action (NPOAs) on seabird bycatch, as recommended by the IPOA-Seabirds, strengthening the argument for countries to protect seabirds within their waters and on the high seas.

• Outreach workshops engage governments and industry to raise awareness of seabird bycatch in tuna fleets. Port-based outreach is an emerging opportunity to provide practical instruction on distant water vessels, including globally significant fleets from Japan and Chinese Taipei.

• Collaborative at-sea trials with the fishing industry or national research agencies, including in Japan and Korea, demonstrate that fleets can deploy mitigation measures effectively with no impact on target fish catch.

Key lessons learned: 

Suitable policies at the international level are essential, but the real test is to ensure effective implementation. Engaging fishermen is key to enable a fleet transition from theory to practice, so BirdLife International and others invest substantial energy in helping fleets to introduce inexpensive measures to comply with the new seabird-friendly requirements.

RFMOs have not yet established penalties for non-compliance with bycatch management measures, other than letters of concern.

Ongoing needs include ensuring full implementation of existing measures, embedding good practice in national fleets to ensure sustainability of improvements, improving the consistency of compliance monitoring and bycatch reporting across RFMOs globally.

BirdLife’s goal is that, by 2020, the conservation prospects for those albatrosses impacted by bycatch will be improving; populations will be stabilising, and some species may be downlisted on the IUCN Red List. In addition, a goal is that seabird bycatch avoidance is seen as a central component of fisheries management.

Impacts and outcomes: 

The decade of BirdLife’s engagement in these efforts is a relatively short period to yet show significant positive impacts on seabird populations – especially given the long life span of albatrosses. An assessment to be carried out in 2016 and 2017 will start review of the effectiveness of the RFMO measures. However, there have been major policy changes, as all RFMOs whose areas overlap with global albatross distribution have recognised the bycatch problem and adopted a variety of measures to reduce it. The five tuna RFMOs, have strengthened requirements for data collection and bycatch mitigation measures on fishing vessels.

The changes are also illustrated by the Commission for Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna (CCSBT), which has the greatest overlap with albatross distribution of any RFMO. In 2011 the CCSBT adopted a Recommendation to Mitigate the Impact on Ecologically Related Species of Fishing for Southern Bluefin Tuna, to reduce harm to seabirds, turtles and sharks. This sets out various binding and non-binding measures, including equipment to scare seabirds away from fishing lines, and promoting action to reduce bycatch within national fishing industries. The CCSBT also strongly encourages members to implement other international agreements, including IPOA-Seabirds and IPOA-Sharks.

There have also been major changes at the national level. For example, in 2012 the Republic of Korea was initially uncertain about a seabird conservation resolution to be adopted at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, but then agreed to support the resolution and committed to help its fleet transition to using best-practice bycatch mitigation measures, supported by BirdLife International. Four years on, Korea’s fleet has implemented these measures and BirdLife is working with other distant-water fleets emulate the good practice.

Contact details: 
Cleo Small, Head of BirdLife International Marine Programme,
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