Birds with Jobs: Albatrosses to Patrol the High Seas

Image result for albatrosses
A Flying Albatross. Credit: The Conversation

The Perfect Candidate

Up in the air, albatrosses are very much birds of the sea. They are able to ride the ocean waves and fly the strongest winds on Earth. Their ability to fly over vast distances – 8.5 million kilometers during its lifespan – and attraction to fishing boats makes them the perfect candidate to track illegal fishing in the high seas.

In a new study by Centre d’études biologiques de Chizé, researchers attached logging devices onto 169 albatrosses in the southern Indian Ocean, where immense and highly valuable fisheries operate. The logger contains a GPS system and a miniature radar detector. This new method called the “Ocean Sentinel” method now has the ability to monitor and track down illegal fisheries in real time.

Researchers tagged an adult wandering albatross.
An adult albatross tagged by researchers. Credit: The New York Times

Illegal fishery is complex and problematic

Map showing the albatrosses’ foraging zone (blue line). Green dots represent declared vessels and red dots represented undeclared vessels. Yellows lines are Exclusive Economic Zones and anything outside are international waters. Credit: CBC

Illegal fishing is difficult to monitor and can cause massive destruction to ecosystems and destroy fish populations.  Accidental bycatch alone kill hundreds of thousands of mammals and birds each year. Open oceans do not belong to a single nation and are considered international waters. It is often hard to obtain the location of fishing vessels in real time as the monitoring systems can be turned off via the Vessel Monitoring System or Automatic Identification System (AIS). AIS turned off can often be used as a sign for illegal fishing.

Check out these websites to see global fishing activity in real time:

Innovative Solution

Fig. 2.
Schematic of “Oceanic Sentinel” method. Trackers on albatross are transmitted to Argos System. Data is analyzed and compared to VMS/AIS data and is alerted to Navy ships for potential action for undeclared vessels. Credit: PNAS

Human patrolling by sea or air is time consuming, costly and ineffective. But with this “Ocean Sentinel” method, it could alert authorities to investigate whether illegal fishing is taking place straight away. The study found that one-third (35%) of fishing boats in the high seas had no monitoring system on.

The solution is not without its faults. The sex or age of albatrosses can affect how often they come in contact with fishing boats. Males tend to forage in areas where fishing boats are rarer, such as the Antarctica, while females tend to fly near hotspot zones, such as the tropics.

New research allows us to have a better understanding of where illegal fishing takes place and how often people get away with nonreported fishing practices. It’s innovative and fresh and hold those reckless responsible for their action. It’s not perfect and there’s a lot of work to be done, but every day scientists are working hard to fix a problem that is vital to keeping our oceans safe.

Want to learn more? Check out #OceanConsvnUBC on twitter to learn more about ocean conservation or the links below to find out more about albatrosses!




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