There has always been a symbiotic relationship between seabirds and fishermen. In a time before technology took over, birds were guiding fishing boats to the fish schools at sea, and today, they still crowd around trawlers. Unfortunately, many times seabirds attracted to fishing boats are accidentally caught on hooks or in nets and end up drowning.
Each year, around 200,000 birds are accidentally killed at sea in European waters alone, making it one of the main threats to seabird life. Gillnets, longlines and seines are among the gears with the greatest impact on seabirds. The extinction of the common murre, the sea bird symbol of the Berlenga Nature Reserve off the Portuguese Atlantic coast, is largely due to accidental catches in gillnets.
While there are existing measures to prevent accidental catching of seabirds in nets and lines, the success of these measures will depend on the geographic location, the behavior of the seabirds and even the fishermen's way of operating.
Funded by the EU, the MedAves project aims to understand the interaction of seabirds and fishing activity in a given geographical area and on adapting and implementing best practices to prevent accidental catching. The project is concentrated around two innovative methods. One method, developed by the company FishTek, uses a small robust device with LED lights, which can be attached to fishing nets. Gillnets are practically invisible to birds under water, but the green LED lights signal their presence, thus helping birds to avoid them. The lights are attached to the mother line of the net for every 10 meters and triggered by the salinity of the seawater, thus extending battery life.
The other method, created by a Portuguese bird protection NGO, SPEA (Sociedade Portuguesa para o Estudo das Aves), mimics a bird of prey - known as the ‘scary bird device’ - which scares away seabirds from the fishing zone. Within the framework of the project, the Fisheries Local Action Group (FLAG) in Oeste and SPEA worked with a group of fishers to adapt and implement these devices in practice. They did this alongside raising the awareness of good practices such as what to do if a bird gets entangled in a fishing net.
The Oeste FLAG worked as an intermediary between the NGO and the fishing community, to enable better communication and cooperation. The ‘scary bird device’ was tested during 182 fishing trips; 48 fishing trips with a fishing observer onboard; and 134 fishing trips monitored by the boats’ captain. Those tests have revealed which techniques are best suited to the specific fishing practices and gears, and can contribute significantly to the conservation of sea birds in Berlenga. Moreover, an awareness campaign connected to the MedAves project resulted in around 60 fishers joining the project.
The EU funding of MedAves has contributed in protecting marine life and environment while spreading good fishing practices. The process of testing and adapting the seabird protection methods has the potential to be rolled out at national level throughout Portugal, and could well be replicated by FLAGs in other Member States.
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Check out the December Euronews Ocean episode on sustainable aquaculture and read the study on mitigation measures to minimise seabird bycatch in gillnet fisheries
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