A new technique to track Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing is about to be used in Antarctica.The method is one of cooperation between men and albatrosses.

To track illegal fishing boats, scientists will use albatrosses that they will equip with a small radar. The birds are the ones who will hunt the poachers.

Poaching in Antarctica

Authorities have long been aware of poaching activities but have found if difficult to police an area so remote and that’s roughly the size of the continental United States.
It is a huge illegal business. Each trawler could hold more than $1m worth of Antarctic toothfish, marketed in North America as Chilean sea bass.

The Kunlun fishing vessel in the Southern Ocean. The New Zealand navy was involved in a high-seas standoff. Photo: AFP/New Zealand Defence Force/Amanda Mcerlich Photograph: Cpl Amanda Mcerlich/AFP/Getty Images

Illegal fishing for toothfish hurts other species in the region as well, said Andrew Wright, executive secretary of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which oversees international fishing in the region. He said poachers use nets up to 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) long and often abandon them, allowing the equipment to needlessly kill other fish for years afterward.

What can Albatrosses do ?

These seabirds are capable of travelling 10,000 miles in a single journey and circumnavigating the globe in 46 days. They fly hundreds of miles per day to find their food. That is much further, and also much faster than the navy can do.

Usually when fishermen are breaking the law they try to be discreet and cut off their Automatic Identification System (AIS) signal, a sort of GPS tracker. However for safety reasons to prevent collisions, for example with icebergs, they are forced to have a short range radar, that warns them of what is floating for a few miles around them. These are the radars that albatrosses will spot.

great albatross
Dimas Gianuca, Projeto Albatroz

So as soon as they cross a trawler, within 5 km, their beacon will detect the radar signal and send it in less than 30minutes by satellite to a website.
Tests were conducted at the beginning of 2018, it found out that half of the ships encountered had their AIS turned off.

Between November and March, the first 150 beacons will be put on albatross of the Crozet, Kerguelen and Amsterdam islands, in the French Southern and Antarctic Lands when they will come to nest.

The information collected will be accessible to researchers and authorities. Unfortunately it will not yet be able to identify the ship itself but will provide valuable intel for further investigations. 

The Vengence of the Albatrosses

We like to think of this as a way for the specie to take their revenge for what they are going through because of mankind.

The program to tag the albatrosses was initially developed by the french National Centre for Scientific Research as a mean to study the animals and understand their behaviour and better protect the specie back in the 1960s. Back then the population was rapidly declining.

longline drowned albatross
An albatross caught on a longline used for fishing. Photo: Dr. Graham Robertson

Longline fishing, a long line whose baited hooks attract and trap albatrosses, dragging them down, was pointed out. Then the population recovered, after the progress made with the southern fisheries to minimize the risks. Yet mortality, particularly of young albatrosses, has been on the rise for a decade (-20%), raising questions about their particular vulnerability to fisheries, or even a more general difficulty in obtaining supplies, the scientists question.

According to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature), 18 out of 22 albatross species are threatened, some of which are in danger of extinction. Globally, there are approximately 25,000 breeding pairs of Great Albatrosses (Diomedea exulans).

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