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Monday, September 30, 1996


Long-line fishing hooks
threaten mighty albatross

WHILE visiting Midway about a year ago, I saw a black-footed albatross with both ends of an enormous hook poking out of its neck. The bird seemed unfazed by this involuntary body-piercing. It strutted the nesting grounds like an outlaw. "Stand back," the albatross seemed to say. "I'm bad."

Even though the bird was apparently unharmed, refuge manager Ken Neithammer decided the hook must go. It was both a handicap and a potential danger for this native seabird.

Three people worked to remove the 3-inch-long hook, embedded in the superficial flesh of the animal's neck. When the bird was released, it huffed away, disgruntled but healthy looking.

I picked up the beefy hook and turned it over in my hand. "This is some hook," I said.

"It's from a long-line fishing boat," Ken said.

"I thought long-line hooks hung down really deep," I said. "How would the bird get to it?"

"They dive for the bait as the fishermen set them out."

"Is this common?" I asked.

Ken waved his hand over the black-footed albatross nesting grounds. "No one knows. But the number of birds in these nesting grounds is dropping each year. We're worried."

TODAY, wildlife managers are worried more than ever. The rate at which albatrosses and other seabirds are being killed on long-

line fish hooks worldwide is so high that some species are approaching extinction. The world population of the wandering albatross, a southern hemisphere bird, has declined 41 percent in the last 30 years.

Wandering albatrosses continue to dwindle about 10 percent per year, a rate that can't go on much longer if the species is to survive.

Other albatrosses, such as our black-footed albatross, and the critically endangered short-tailed albatross (only about 600 remain), also are suffering severe losses from long-line hooks.

Long-line fishermen are getting the word about this problem. In Australia and New Zealand, laws already mandate that fishing lines have bird-avoidance gear on them. No such laws exist in the United States, but unless long-liners voluntarily adopt seabird preservation measures, it's inevitable.

LAST week, Honolulu workers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Western Fisheries Management Council had a meeting with Hawaii's long-line fishermen to discuss the problem and ways around it. The point is to stop catching seabirds before the problem causes more trouble for both the birds and the fishery.

The fishermen, who seemed interested and willing, don't want to catch seabirds. Not only does it waste bait and time, the fishermen need these birds to show them where the fish are.

At little or no cost, long-liners can nip this problem on their own. They can:

Set long-line gear at night. Albatrosses are most active during the day and at dusk.

Decrease lights that illuminate the water at night. Lights only help the birds find the bait.

Throw hooks into the water from the lee side of the boat. Hooks sink faster there than on the turbulent windward side.

Haul in gear as fast as possible and keep the line coming up at a steep angle to the surface.

Thaw bait completely. Frozen bait floats.

Only buy bait with deflated swim bladders. Air trapped in bait bodies makes them float.

At some cost to fishermen, they can:

Buy and use bird lines. These contain lightweight flags that scare off birds.

Use weighted hooks to help them sink faster.

Albatrosses, the legendary guardians of the ocean and seamen, are in big trouble. If long-line fishermen don't take care of this problem, the federal government surely will.

 

 


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, www.starbulletin.com