When you think of Brazil and birds, you probably think of rainforests and brightly-colored parrots. However, the recent arrival of the Volvo Ocean Race to the country should make you think again…
Albatrosses are less likely to come to mind – after all, none breed there – but the waters off the coast of Brazil are among the most productive in the world. Where there’s good food, there’s sure to be an abundance of seabirds.
Albatrosses are famous for their long foraging trips therefore it is probably not surprising that albatrosses seen feeding in Brazil have been tracked by satellite, travelling from as far away as the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, or Tristan da Cunha.
In the austral winter Brazil’s seas are teeming with life. Seabirds arrive in their thousands from the colder waters of the Southern Ocean to partake in the feast on offer, and where there’s fish, of course, there are fishermen.
In 2002, Brazil’s commercial fishing fleet landed 50,575 tons of fish (mostly tuna, swordfish and sharks). It is estimated that over 6 million baited longline hooks were set, resulting in the death of nearly 7,000 seabirds, mostly Black-browed Albatrosses, White-chinned Petrels and Great Shearwaters.
There are two types of commercial longlining fisheries in Brazil’s rich waters. Demersal fisheries specialize in fish on the sea floor (cod, flatfish etc.), while pelagic fisheries take tuna and swordfish closer to the surface.
The Demersal fleet is relatively small (around 35 boats), but more than 4,000 seabirds were accidentally caught and killed in 2000, including 2,500 great shearwaters and over 700 albatrosses.
Brazil’s Demersal fisheries set their baited hooks in daylight as when they set them at night, their catch is eaten or damaged by small crustaceans on the sea floor. This means that Brazil’s Demersal fishing is likely to kill more albatrosses than its larger pelagic fleet (58 boats), which sets its lines at night when fewer albatrosses are feeding.
The 300 traditional longliners (local fishermen catching food for their family and for sale in the local market) fish by day in traditional small, wooden boats and although their longlines each have up to 1,200 hooks – as many as commercial pelagic longlines – there are no estimates of the seabird by catch, but many albatross deaths have been reported.
Around 20 different species of seabirds are caught on Brazil’s longlines, including seven species of albatross (Black-browed, Atlantic Yellow-nosed, wandering, Tristan, Grey-headed, Light-mantled and Sooty).
The Black-browed Albatross is the most frequently caught; estimated at over 1,600 deaths a year. Most of these are juveniles from the Falkland Islands, which on fledging will spend several years foraging many thousands of kilometers from home, before returning to find a mate, build a nest and breed. With so many juveniles dying before they can complete the lifecycle, the future of this species is seriously threatened.
The Spectacled Petrel is a frequent visitor to Brazil. This species breeds exclusively at Inaccessible Island on Tristan, and only a few thousand breeding pairs remain. A close relative of the more abundant, but frequently caught White-chinned Petrel, it is easy to see how this species could be threatened by longlining.
Fortunately, help is at hand in these troubled waters. Since 1991, Projecto Albatroz has been working on these issues with the fishing industry, researchers and universities, both to monitor and record the extent of the problem, but lately also to work with fishermen at sea and onshore to show them how to use techniques which will reduce the number of seabird deaths.
Later this year, two of BirdLife’s Albatross Task Force members will reinforce this much needed effort, essential for making the important feeding grounds of Brazil a safe haven for its seabird visitors.
Mercopress – www.mercopress.com