Russell manages the trawling division of Sea Harvest, one of South Africa’s largest hake producers. He has been involved with the company’s vessels for more than 20 years, but today finds himself devoting more and more time to things that do not immediately seem to concern the day-today business of running a fishing fleet.
Albatrosses, for example. The issue of seabirds getting caught up in fishing gear came to light when the South African Hake Trawl Fishery applied for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification. A study found around 18,000 birds, including albatrosses, were being killed each year.
“It was a huge problem,” says Ross Wanless, who co-ordinates BirdLife South Africa’s work on seabirds in Africa.
“Albatrosses are particularly vulnerable because they are large, aggressive birds that dominate the access to food, and so are more likely to become entangled in the trawl gear. They are also of higher conservation concern, so the issue is most acute for them.”
Reducing seabird mortality was a condition of the fishery’s MSC certification. Working with WWF and BirdLife, the industry reacted quickly to introduce measures such as tori lines – colourful streamers flown from boats to scare the birds away. “Their introduction has reduced albatross interactions with fishing gear very significantly,” says Ross. As a result, what began as a voluntary initiative was incorporated into mandatory fishing permit regulations in 2006.
Further ImprovementsDespite these improvements, however, “it became clear that current regulations were not enough,” says Russell. “Unfortunately, it seems that by scaring the albatrosses away, we have opened the door for the smaller petrels and other species,” Ross adds.
This time, action was taken through the Responsible Fisheries Alliance (RFA) – a partnership WWF set up with four of South Africa’s leading fishing industry companies (Irvin & Johnson Ltd, Oceana Group Ltd, Viking Fishing Group and Sea Harvest Corporation) in 2009.
“A task team with representatives from each company, plus members of WWF and BirdLife South Africa, studied what more could be done to prevent interactions with seabirds,” says Russell. They looked at issues like where and when the lines were deployed, how offal – which attracts the birds in the first place – was discarded, and even what colour the lines should be (yellow appears best).
“What works on one ship may not work on another,” Russell explains. “The RFA engaged a consultant to see what was most effective for each class of vessel, spending time on 15 different vessel types.”
The RFA and BirdLife brought their findings to the government, which updated the permit conditions with immediate effect. Ross is hopeful this will make a difference: “The new permit conditions will ensure a more effective bird-scaring line design is used, and that the lines are deployed as soon as there is any risk to seabirds – which should drop overall interaction rates, and albatross-specific rates still further.” Meanwhile, RFA members have replaced heavily greased trawl wires with ones using a thinner lubricant, which are less likely to trap small birds.”
Raised AwarenessThe RFA runs a Responsible Fisheries training course, developed by WWF to help fishers and managers learn what an ecosystem approach to fisheries is all about. Several hundred people have attended, including many fishing boat captains and crew.
“It’s created tremendous awareness,” says Russell. “If skippers are interested, and coming back to you with issues and ideas, that’s how things will be resolved. Good practices become daily habits.”
Better Production for a Living Planet
- Overfishing due to unfit catch limits and illegal fishing;
- Fishing down the food web;
- Habitat destruction through use of unsustainable fishing gear;
- Subsidies to increase vessel capacity and failure to set science-based catch quotas and recovery plans;
- Wasteful discards and bycatch of marine birds and other mammal species.
Good management and responsible behaviour can result in:
- Sustainable fishing quotas;
- Reduced bycatch and discards;
- Supportive legislation, effective monitoring and control;
- Habitats and species protection;
- Sustainable sourcing through credible MSC certification.
Markets and consumers today are more environmentally conscious. This is why the trawl industry pushed hard to obtain MSC certification for its target species, hake. The MSC label is very important to us as an exporter, so any issue that affects our accreditation is important.
2020 priority populations of Alaska pollock, cod, hoki, orange roughy, toothfish and hake are MSC certified, harvested without negative impact on the ecosystem and under implementation of a spatial area plan that protects vulnerable marine ecosystems.