Albatrosses armed with radar tags can help identify illegal fishing vessels

Wandering albatross are one of the most majestic seabirds in the world, but new research shows these ocean sentinels can also be used to help locate the illegal fishing vessels causing them harm.

A wandering albatross soars over the ocean in search for fish and maybe some fishing vessels too

With the wingspan of a small car and a life spent almost entirely at sea wandering albatross are perhaps the most qualified species to help police illegal fishing in our oceans. Now with the help of researchers these gentle giants are doing just that by monitoring fishing vessels with specially designed radar tags. By using the combination of seabirds and satellites the team from the Centre d’études biologiques de Chizé in France have given us the first ever estimate of the rate of illegal fishing in international waters. Unsurprisingly that number is far too high with as many as 37% of fishing vessels ‘sailing dark’ without an active transponder. However it is hoped this technological breakthrough could help significantly reduce that number in the future.

Ocean sentinels

Wandering albatross are the largest of 22 species of albatross belonging to the family Diomedeidae. In fact with a wingspan of 11 feet and a weight of over 25 pounds, they are one of the biggest birds in the world. They use their enormous wingspan to glide effortlessly across the open ocean in high winds, often going hours without flapping them via a method of flight known as dynamic soaring. Wandering albatross spend a majority of their lives at sea spending weeks and sometimes months over water, resting on the surface and drinking seawater as they go. It is because of this they can travel an incredible 8.5 million kilometres in their 50 year lifespans. To put that in perspective that is the same as flying to the moon and back more than 10 times! They also have an incredible sense of smell capable of locating fish, via a compound known as dimethyl sulphide (DMS) created by phytoplankton, over hundreds of miles.

Wandering albatross spend a large proportion of their lives at sea in search for food


Radar ready

It is because of their incredible range, time spent at sea and affinity for fish, that wandering albatross make the perfect candidates to patrol the open oceans for fishing vessels. To help them do this a team from the Centre d’études biologiques de Chizé attached them with specially designed radar tags, which consisted of a GPS antenna, a radar detector and an antenna for transmitting data to satellites. In total 169 birds were attached with tags at breeding sites in Amsterdam, Crozet & Kerguelen Islands and French outposts in the Southern Indian Ocean. The tags were attached by hand and only weighed around two ounces to reduce any potential impacts on the birds. Lead researcher Dr Henri Weimerskirch told the New York Times that the albatrosses were “very easy” to work with and that they were “working on miniaturizing the loggers” even more for future use.

attaching tags
The researchers attach one of their specially adapted radar tags to a wandering albatross

Tracking Illegal fishing

Between November 2018 and May 2019 the tagged albatrosses covered an incredible 18 million square miles of the Southern Indian Ocean between them, around five times the size of the US. Analysing this data Dr Weimerkirch and his team found 353 radar blips belonging to fishing vessels. However of those vessels only 253 had their Automatic Identification System transponders turned on, meaning 28% of vessels did not. The most likely reason for this is that they were fishing without a license or transporting unregistered catches from other vessels. By doing this it makes it very hard for fisheries scientists to accurately assess stocks and properly monitor overfishing. This is particularly a problem in international waters where 37% of vessels were ‘sailing dark. By doing this study the French team have given us the first ever estimate of the rate of illegal fishing in these waters.

Fishing vessels often attract large numbers of seabirds, but a worryingly large proportion of them are unregistered and fishing illegally

Future use

Thanks to this new study we have our best look yet at the levels of illegal fishing in the open ocean. Dr Weimerkirch describes it as a “surprise that the number is so high”, but given the overexploitation of our oceans in almost all areas it is probably less of a shock than we would like it to be. Hopefully though the use of albatrosses as ocean sentinels could help reduce the levels of illegal fishing by shining a spotlight on those responsible. Ironically overfishing and in particular bycatch is one of the main dangers for seabirds like albatross so it seems only fitting they should play a role in securing their own future. The team from the Centre d’études biologiques de Chizé are set to continue their work by setting up new studies in New Zealand, Hawaii and South Georgia. They also hope to show that other seabirds such as petrels can also play a role in monitoring the seas especially as technology improves.

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