Unfortunately, target fish like cod and halibut aren't the only take for Pacific longline fishing boats, which typically trail miles of line with baited hooks through prime fishing grounds. Attracted by the bait and offal thrown overboard, seabirds, too, attempt to dine in the boats' wake. It is frequently their last meal.
"Drowned birds are sometimes unrecognizable when they come up on the hook," says an observer on a medium-size longline vessel who was hired by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to count and identify marine bycatch. "Matching up the bird's bill with the [life-size bill] outline we are given is often the only way to positively identify a seabird's species."
The exact size of the seabird-bycatch problem remains unknown. Extrapolating from the less than 5 percent of U.S. fishing that is officially observed, it's estimated that an average of 20,000 seabirds were killed annually from 1997 to 1999 by Alaskan longliners alone. That's exclusive of halibut boats, which set about 28 million hooks annually but carry no observers at all.
While fulmars, shearwaters, petrels, kittiwakes, and various gull species make up the majority of bycatch, three species of albatross--all of them long-lived and slow to mature and reproduce--may take the hardest population hit. Alaskan bycatch from 1994 to 1999 included 2,425 black-footed, 6,721 Laysan, and 13 endangered short-tailed albatrosses (of which only 1,300 exist in the world). In the prime breeding ground of Hawaii, an additional 8,325 black-footed and 7,050 Laysan albatrosses were probably killed by longliners during the same period. The Laysan population at Laysan and Midway islands in the South Pacific, where 90 percent of the species lives, has dropped 30 percent in the past 10 years.
Because most seabirds feed at or near the surface, recent studies indicate that the death toll could be reduced by as much as 90 percent with a few simple measures: towing streamer lines from the back of the boat as the line is being set (to scare birds off), sinking the line with extra weights, using thawed bait (which sinks faster), setting the hooks at night, and discharging offal away from the lines.
Last February the NMFS submitted a plan of action aimed at reducing seabird mortality to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Though the plan recommended measures to protect seabirds, it did not mandate their implementation.
"The United States has a unique opportunity to set an example on this issue by limiting seabird mortality in our own fisheries," says Gerald Winegrad, vice-president for policy at the American Bird Conservancy. Dismayed by the voluntary nature of the plan, the group is ardently lobbying Congress to enact concrete change.
"We need more comprehensive observer coverage," agrees Carl Safina of Audubon's Living Oceans Program, which teaches consumers and seafood sellers how to avoid bycatch-dirty seafood. "We should mandate the practices that are absolutely best at keeping bycatch low."
The NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service--the federal agency responsible for managing and protecting wildlife--are at loggerheads over how the plan should be administered. Until their differences are ironed out, little will be done to mitigate seabird bycatch, and the biggest losers will continue to be the birds themselves.
"The creation of new wilderness in the full sense of the word is impossible," observed Aldo Leopold. Surely Congress agreed when it passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, which required the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to recommend which of its vast western holdings should be preserved forever as wilderness.
The BLM did eventually recommend more than 26 million acres--set aside in 800 "wilderness study areas" (WSAs)--but getting Congress to take the next step has not been easy. Only 6.2 million of those acres have gone on to gain official wilderness designation under the Wilderness Act of 1964; the most recent big chunk was 315,700 acres in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, in the fall of 2000. Today 17.2 million acres--some containing critical wildlife habitat and rare plants--still dangle in WSA limbo, while vitriolic debates among conservationists, multiple-use supporters, Republicans, and Democrats continue to stall congressional efforts.
In theory, Wilderness Study Areas share most of the protections enjoyed by official wilderness; in reality, legislative delays are costly. When the Wilderness Society listed its "15 Most Endangered Wildlands" in April, it included WSAs in both the Utah Wilderness and Wyoming's Red Desert. The group declared these areas threatened by off-road-vehicle (ORV) use and by the proposed energy initiatives of the Bush administration.
"It looks like they have wilderness study areas right in their crosshairs," said Heidi McIntosh, conservation director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, after reading Department of Interior recommendations for the administration's energy plan. It calls for Congress to "resolve the status" of WSAs, either by designating them as wilderness or by releasing them to non-wilderness uses--oil and gas development, for example. But to open WSAs to energy exploration, says Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society, Congress would have to pass legislation--no mean feat.
In the meantime, the BLM has closed six of seven WSAs in the San Rafael Swell region of Utah to off-road-vehicle use. Last year it also instituted emergency ORV closures in Utah's Moquith Mountain and Parunuweap Canyon WSAs. Much to the dismay of environmentalists, however, the closures did not include the entire study areas, nor all of the existing ORV trails. Wilderness advocates argue that adequate protection for WSAs can come only through official wilderness designation.
© 2001 NASI
Sound off! Send a letter to
Enjoy Audubon on-line? Check out our print edition!