Today I called on our legislators to have the US ratify the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). ACAP is an international treaty that currently has 13 co-signatories who are working together to find ways to help conserve and promote healthy populations of pelagic seabirds. Among their important efforts is finding ways to better manage our long-line fisheries to reduce bycatch of these seabirds, several species of which are listed as threatened or endangered or whose populations are declining.
In 2003, it was estimated that 300,000 seabirds were killed by longline fishing, a type of fishing that much of the industry switched to precisely because drift nets were so much worse at unintentional killing of seabirds and turtles. Longlines can be up to 55 miles long, with thousands of baited hooks. As the line is let out, seabirds often target the bait, swallow the hook, and drown. However, recent efforts to incorporate management techniques including inexpensive flapping streamers that scare off the birds so they dont go after the line as it is let out, in tandem with mitigation techniques that help reduce bycatch for other species including turtles and sharks, has shown that we have the capability to vastly reduce unintended bycatch in our longline fisheries. ACAP is at the forefront of testing and implementing these efforts.
How does this issue intersect with climate change? Fishery bycatch is just one of many additive pressures that are weighing on our pelagic seabirds around the world. Another major impact they are facing is from climate change. Severe weather and sea level rise pose increasing risks to seabird populations who live on remote islands that are already subject to severe conditions; exacerbating the margins of these conditions, and having rising waters encroach on their nesting grounds, are assuredly going to make things even harder for these birds. In 2011, severe storms in the Hawaiian Islands decimated 30,200 black-footed albatross nests and 254,000 Laysan albatross nests that had been previously designated as protected by President Bush, showing how climate variability can override our protection efforts. We need to give these birds every advantage they can get in a climatically erratic future; reducing their unnecessary deaths in our commercial fisheries is one definitive step we can take to mitigate for these impending impacts.
Unfortunately, the US has been dragging its feet on joining ACAP. George W. Bush sent ACAP membership legislation to Congress on his last day in office, but it was never brought forward. Obama has had it on the priority list for ratification in every session of Congress, with no luck so far. Meanwhile, many of the solutions being implemented by ACAP are already things the US is trying to do; according to Audubon, joining ACAP would give us a seat at the table in driving these policies and adding consistency to fisheries practices that would increase fishery efficiency and also be a huge boon for seabirds and other species. Now, our USFWS biologists go to these meetings, and have a lot to contribute, but do not have a seat at the table because we are not members. The reluctance may in part be cost, says a Sea Grant staffer, as membership is weighted towards gross national income. But the benefits of supporting seabird conservation, reducing bycatch, and working collaboratively to manage our seabird populations, are huge.
The link I provided is an easy way to add your voice to the call for ACAP membership via the Audubon’s action center website. Please take a moment to speak up for our magnificent pelagic seabirds; we have solutions at hand to reduce threats to their survival, and we should be fully engaged in implementing them.