Whats to celebrate on World Migratory Bird Day - Dr Ross Wanless of BirdLife South Africa says plenty.
World Migratory Bird Day is celebrated on 8/9 May. By which time all our migratory birds have long since left South Africa for sunnier climes. By rights we should celebrate the return of the swallows in November. Why should we celebrate this distinctly northern hemisphere date? WMBD is one contribution that can safely be left from the alphabet soup that populates contemporary, acronym-ruled speech.
Or is it? The fact is that every year, by the time May rolls around, there are hundreds of thousands of quite amazing, highly migratory birds in South Africa. They come to feast on the winter abundance. The young birds stay year-round, because the going is so good here there’s no point in going anywhere until it’s time to ‘head home’ and find a mate.
Adults travel stupendous distances to get here, gorge themselves for months, and then head south for the summer to breed. There’s only one group of birds that can possibly head south from Cape Town and still be happy breeding: seabirds.
The rich waters of the Benguela ecosystem attract albatrosses to our waters by the boat-load. That winter is the best time to see albatrosses in our waters probably comes as a surprise to most people. In fact I suspect the surprise for most is simply that one can see an albatross in the flesh without going to the Antarctic.
Nevertheless, with a good telescope, a hot thermos and patience, anyone can sit on the cliffs at Cape Point Nature Reserve, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and see some of these incredible animals for themselves.
There’s an array of day trips that run out of Simon’s Town and will take punters out to the edge of the continental shelf, where these birds gather. And gather they do - in large numbers in the winter months.
On a good day in winter, a trip can net you (to use a fishing metaphor) six or seven albatross species, double that in smaller species, and literally thousands of birds in a mixed flock behind a single fishing vessel, all in a mad, hungry, whirling melee.
Many species are exquisitely adapted to find smelly scraps of food on the endless, featureless ocean. Enter industrial fishing boats, which are like gigantic dinner gongs, good-smelling restaurants and the ubiquitous ‘Golden M’ fast-food icon, all rolled into one. For albatrosses, if there’s a fishing vessel in sight there’s little point in doing anything else except waiting for the inevitable handout.
And therein lies a problem. The fishing vessels’ handouts might provide a quick, easy meal, but nets and hooks are lethal obstacles to getting the free food. Each year hundreds of thousands of seabirds die the most horrific deaths – dragged underwater and drowned. If other air-breathing, charismatic marine predators (dolphins and whales) were massacred in this manner, the fishing practices such as trawling and longlining would have been outlawed long ago.
Instead of banning longliners from catching tuna, BirdLife International has worked for 12 years to find creative solutions to this debacle. It is an endless source of frustration that the burden of proof lies not with the fishing companies, but with environmentalists.
We have to prove they are causing irreversible harm to ecosystems by wiping ‘non-target’ species from the earth in their quest for more profitable fishing. That’s a tall order! But those are the cards the conservation world has been dealt, and the rules are not likely to change anytime soon, so grumbling is best kept to a minimum!
The plight of albatrosses has not improved much, indeed it’s mostly been a downhill run for them, despite concerted efforts, ingenuity and some technical breakthroughs. We’ve raised awareness across the globe, raised millions of dollars and roped in fishermen, researchers and celebrities to help save the albatross.
The Global Seabird Programme operates like a mini-BirdLife International, and we even launched the ‘Save the Albatross Campaign’, modeled on the highly successful campaign to end whaling that was run in the 60s and 70s. BirdLife South Africa became host to the first Albatross Task Force team in the world, in 2006.
There are now seven teams around the world, working at the ‘grassroots’ level with skippers, vessel owners, fishery managers in government and the like. This inspired approach has paid huge dividends, primarily for seabirds.
Our work is made easier by the likes of WWF, and their Sustainable Seafood Initiative, and the Marine Stewardship Council, both of which raise public awareness about the crises (note: that’s plural, because there’s a lot more than one crisis) facing sustainable fishing.
At the local level, the South African team has achieved some spectacular gains, and has won the support of the industries in which we’ve worked. The trawl industry has dropped its seabird bycatch rate by >60% since 2006. Pelagic longliners have achieved similar results. But on a global scale, the gains in South Africa are small, certainly woefully insufficient to reverse the population decreases.
What’s more, those gains are not cost-free. Although the onus has been on the conservation sector to prove the measures to reduce seabird deaths work, and that they will not cost the industry dearly, there are costs involved for fishing responsibly – such as having observers on board.
Nations that don’t enforce responsible fishing practices don’t incur those costs, can fish more cost-effectively, and therefore sell their fish, caught at the expense of sharks, turtles and seabirds, more competitively.
The good news is that after years of advocacy, BirdLife International has learned a bit about how international fishing is managed. There is slow, but steady progress in many of the world’s regional tuna management organisations.
The technologies to reduce seabird bycatch really meaningfully are accumulating; the tide is turning. Luck is on our side, for no reason other than this: fishermen don’t actually want to catch seabirds. So as long as we can find ways to prevent this without really getting in the way of their fishing, we will be successful!
So perhaps you should accept the hemispheric imperialism implicit (and to be fair, unavoidable without significant complications) in the 8/9 May WMBD celebration.