21 January, 2019

British Antarctic Survey scientist Professor Richard Phillips has been awarded funding to use newly developed radar-detecting tags to track the interactions between wandering albatrosses and fishing vessels in the South Atlantic.

The funding comes from the UK Government as part of Darwin Plus, which supports projects aimed at protecting and enhancing the environment in the UK Oversea Territories. £3.75 million will be shared amongst 17 projects around the globe supporting international biodiversity.

Researchers will attach state-of-the-art radar trackers to adult and juvenile wandering albatrosses on Bird Island, South Georgia. The project aims to determine how often and where these iconic seabirds interact with legal and/or illegal fishing vessel in the South Atlantic Ocean. Scientists will also study the bird’s behaviour as they interact with fishing vessels. They will record the distance at which the birds react to the vessel’s presence and the proportion of time spent behind vessels. This information will help determine bycatch risk for birds of different sex, age and breeding status.

Wandering albatrosses on South Georgia. Photo credit: Richard Phillips.

Identifying hotspots and periods where seabirds are more susceptible to bycatch is crucial for informing conservation policy to protect seabirds in the South Atlantic. With a better understanding of risk, efforts can be focused on improving regulations, practices and compliance with recommended bycatch mitigation, and monitoring of seabird bycatch rates by independent observers.

Professor Richard Phillips, seabird ecologist at the British Antarctic Survey says:

“We’ve known seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels are vulnerable to bycatch, particularly since the mid 1990s. What is exciting about this project is the use of new technology, radar-detecting tags and 3-D acceleration loggers. These technologies will allow us to gain a greater insight into how birds behave when foraging at sea behind fishing vessels and provide the first indication of the level of illegal fishing in the region. This collaborative project with BirdLife International will gather much-needed information to help inform policies to protect seabirds.”

Results will help stakeholders and policy makers to better target bycatch observer programmes, monitor compliance with bycatch mitigation and highlight impacts of bycatch on seabirds.

The UK is a signatory to the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) part of the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Around South Georgia, regulations introduced under the auspices of CCAMLR (Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) led to a drop in seabird bycatch in the local Patagonian toothfish fishery from 1000s of birds killed per year in the late 1990s to negligible levels since 2004. Elsewhere in the southern hemisphere, however, continuing poor practices and weak or no enforcement of regulations leads to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds every year in longline, trawl and artisanal fisheries.

Minister for the Overseas Territories Lord (Tariq) Ahmad of Wimbledon said:

“The UK’s Overseas Territories have some of the world’s most pristine waters and natural environments, from the polar regions to the Caribbean, and we are committed to doing all we can to preserve them. This funding will help conservation projects continue their good work, boosting protections for wildlife and supporting sustainable livelihoods which will preserve our precious environment for future generations.”

Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey said:

“The UK is demonstrating global leadership through funding these 16 projects through Darwin Plus. Our 25 Year Environment Plan has set the priorities for funding and demonstrates the UK’s global leadership. Protecting and enhancing biodiversity in our Overseas Territories will help to make crucial activities such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry and tourism more sustainable.”

Professor Stephen Blackmore, Chair of the Darwin Plus Advisory Group said:

“The range of the projects funded by Darwin Plus in our British Overseas Territories shows how we can effect change and better support and protect biodiversity around the globe. I am proud that we are delivering Darwin Plus funding to benefit animal and plant species and their habitats, which are vital to humanity’s economic and social development.”