Will the World Adopt Sustainable Longline Fishing Practices?
The U.S. is setting the standard for ecologically sustainable longline fishing. Now it's time to make sure the rest of the world gets onboard.
In 1991 the United States banned large pelagic driftnets because of the enormous "bycatch" of seabirds, sea turtles, marine mammals, and non-target fish. So commercial fishermen began switching to longlining. Gear can consist of up to 55 miles of main line with 1,400 600-foot branch lines from which dangle thousands of baited hooks.
Bycatch remained horrendous. By 2003 longliners from 40 nations were killing at least 300,000 seabirds (including 22 endangered species) and countless billfish and sharks.
The United States is the world leader in innovations to reduce longlining bycatch of birds, but we haven't come nearly as far with protections for non-target fish and sea turtles. Many other nations don't use mitigation for any kind of bycatch. Largely as a result, about half of the world's petrels and most of the albatrosses are threatened with extinction.
The international bedrock of seabird protection is the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). A major player in drafting ACAP was BirdLife International, a global conservation outfit that works with longliners to implement mitigation, with Audubon as its U.S. partner. ACAP signatories include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, France, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Uru- guay, but, oddly, not the United States. That's unfortunate because ACAP membership could bring in other players and create a forum for the U.S. to pressure foreign fleets to implement our reforms.
On his last day in office George W. Bush sent legislation to Congress facilitating membership in ACAP. And President Obama has kept it on the priority list for ratification in every session of Congress since. So far, no success.
"We don't want it to be regulatory for the U.S. industry," says Mike Daulton, Audubon's vice president of government relations, who has launched an intensive lobbying effort to get Congress to join ACAP. "We want it to be something that gets other countries up to our standards. You would think longliners would want to be pulling in lucrative fish, not drowned seabirds. What in the world would be the interest in not doing mitigation considering how inexpensive it is?"
A hundred dollars is all a captain has to pay for a very effective seabird mitigation device--a line with streamers attached that hangs from a high point on the vessel and is dragged in the water. The flapping streamers scare birds away from the bait, giving it a chance to sink out of reach.
"ACAP would help us protect some of the most endangered birds on the globe," adds Daulton. "And from a business standpoint, it would make our domestic fisheries more competitive by forcing foreign fleets to implement our best management practices. As of now there's no opposition."
So why is ACAP stuck? I put the question to Ed Melvin of Washington Sea Grant (administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Melvin, a fisheries biologist with a flair for engineering, is a world leader in developing seabird mitigation for longliners. And despite the fact that the United States is not an ACAP member, there's a U.S. delegation to ACAP on which he has served several times.
"The U.S. is historically reluctant to sign on to these kinds of agreements because payment for membership is weighted toward gross national income. But the U.S. is involved in ACAP up to its elbows. The Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. delegation got the north Pacific albatrosses [Laysan, black-footed, and short-tailed] listed under ACAP. And NMFS [the National Marine Fisheries Service] pays for my participation. Not being a member is awkward, though, because when the advisory committee meets, we're not at the table. If the United States signs on, Japan might follow and potentially Taiwan and Korea. They are the major pelagic longline nations."
Melvin served on a working group of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources--the international collaboration that made best-practices recommendations for seabird conservation in fisheries and put itself out of business with perhaps the most stunning bycatch success story to date. Bird bycatch was reduced to near zero with streamers; fishing at night, when the birds have trouble seeing baits; limiting fishing to the birds' non-breeding season; and using weights that kept baits (set for Patagonian toothfish, a.k.a. Chilean seabass) below bird diving range.
The group's work drew attention to the fact that a lot of seabird mortality was coming from outside the Antarctic convention area, and this awareness helped spawn ACAP.