Bird Cops Are Catching Illegal Fishermen

By Caroline Delbert Jan 29, 2020

Scientists have attached radar detectors to seabirds in the Indian Ocean, and the birds have unearthed shocking statistics about illegal fishing.

Researchers working in the far south of the Indian Ocean attached radar devices to 169 local albatrosses, who they then monitored for six months. Albatrosses are naturally drawn to fishing boats and can see them from almost 20 miles away, making them de facto living radar detectors equipped in turn with the real thing.

The scientists based their research in the Crozet Islands, a distant part of the French overseas empire and fully designated as a nature conservancy. They’re below the Antarctic Circle, just 1,500 miles from Antarctica and 1,500 miles away from the nearest inhabited land mass of Madagascar. Isolated islands are a great place to study the exact technology these scientists wanted to monitor: the radar-based automatic identification system (AIS), which all ships over a certain size must keep switched on at all times unless they’re protected intelligence vessels or a few other exceptions.

By monitoring local albatrosses, the researchers secondhand observed over 350 local ships, and they could instantly cross-reference where the ship’s AIS data should be. If there was no AIS signature for that ship, the researchers knew its operators had illegally turned off their AIS. Experts say it’s understandable why ships would turn AIS off: In competitive fishing areas or when illegal fishing could be more lucrative, that incentivizes flying under the radar without revealing their location.

In this study, the albatrosses’ radar devices sent data back to the lab within a couple of hours, which let scientists compare ship location data in nearly realtime. Of the 353 ships the researchers observed this way, 26 percent of the ships within the Crozet Islands’ “exclusive economic zone,” the official term for an understood distance from shore still considered the jurisdiction of that landmass, had their AIS turned off. In international waters, the number jumped to 37 percent.

The researchers say bird cops aren’t going to replace AIS tracking in traditional ways—the birds can’t monitor ships on an ongoing basis or anything, and they mostly offer a way to spot check against AIS data to see who’s trying to sneak around. Policing local fishing boats may not sound like what the science-y “good guys” should be doing, but illegal fishing can also include poaching of endangered species.

Specifically in the Crozet Islands, half the orca population was killed by illegal fishing between 1996 and 2002. Those fishing ships weren’t even looking for orcas—they were collateral damage. The Crozets are home to unusual breeds, like six new deep sea fish uncovered in just one trip by a keen-eyed scientist in 2008. The islands host a nearby algae bloom the size of Ireland.

It’s a special place with a lot to protect, and there are similarly diverse places around the world, where some light policing could go a long way to reduce harm to endangered species and unique local fauna. In fact, the launch of this albatross program cited a need to identify threats to the birds themselves, with their spying on ships as an off-label benefit.

In the Crozet Islands, illegal fishing is for the birds.

The Mysterious Case of the Missing Muttonbirds

Karen Hunt 30/1/20

A short-tailed shearwater corpse on Griffith Island, Warnambool.

Something is killing the shearwaters on Griffith Island at Warnambool.

The Island, on Victoria’s southwestern coast, is the home to one of the largest nesting colonies of Short-tailed Shearwaters (aka muttonbirds) on the mainland of Australia.

Or it usually is.

In January as I walked around the colony on Griffith Island, I was shocked to see the number of corpses littering the landscape, both adults and fluffy, unfledged chicks.

The last time I was on the Island, two years ago, the same walk produced not even one corpse, so to say I was shocked is an uderstatement.

And it appears this is not the only mystery surrounding the muttonbirds – at least half the population is missing. The migratory birds usually touch down at Griffith Island after their incredible flight from Alaska on September 22, but this year not only were they late, but there was only about half the usual number.

I contacted Peter Barrand, President of Birdlife Warnambool, the closest Birdlife group, to see if he had any answers

In the case of the missing muttonbirds, what he says is alarming, although given the lack of useful information about the migratory species, its all theory. Reports from the northern hemisphere, where the birds spend their winters, suggest that a lack of food is leaving the birds with little fuel for their long journey south. Perhaps, Peter suggests, they stopped to replenish the supplies along the way, or even decided to give breeding a miss this year and head straight for better feeding grounds in the Antarctic.

There have been, he says, reports of massive numbers of shearwaters found dead both along the eastern seaboard and, earlier in the year, in the northern hemisphere. Autopsies by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that the birds had starved to death.

Its concerning because shearwater populations were only just recovering from a similar die off in 2013, and as they only have one egg a year, its a long, slow road to rebuild the population.

And as for the corpses littering the landscape, there’s no more positive answers. It could be, says Peter, the birds that have arrived are so weakened by their long flight and lack of food they die as soon as they land. Or maybe foxes, although the local authority has conducted control operations on the Island. He also posits wandering dogs or cats, but with no real enthusiasm.

The fact is that even though shearwaters are the most common migratory seabird, they only make landfall in the dark and head straight into their burrows, makes them very difficult to count. Hard data is difficult to find so no one knows the population size or dynamic.

Its all guesswork, according to Peter Barrand. But the birds are due to leave in April for their long flight back to the northern waters, and there’s no guessing how many will return next year. It could be the shearwater population goes from ‘most abundant’ to ‘in terrible trouble’ in the space of a couple of years, a truly terrifying thought.

But after the devastating loss of both birds and animals in the bushfires this year, and the concentration on saving those who survived, the fate of the missing muttonbirds is likely to remain on the backburner for some time to come.