• Nick Smith

"Prompt action is required to prevent the deaths of New Zealand albatrosses in fishing operations," says the Minister of Conservation. Nick Smith was commenting on the unloading in Wellington today of more than 65 large seabirds, mostly albatrosses, drowned on the hooks of an oceanic tuna longline vessel fishing off the East Coast of the South Island under charter to the Japan-New Zealand Tuna Fishing Company. This high capture rate occurred despite the vessel using bird scaring lines and restricting line setting to night time when albatrosses are generally less active. Most of the captures occurred around the period of full moon. Long term studies on wandering albatross in the Atlantic and Indian oceans have shown up to 50% declines in populations over the last 20 years from fishing.

"New Zealand has the greatest diversity of seabird species in the world - 90 species, of which 42% breed or are found nowhere else, including 12 species of albatross, and 13 species of penguins. NZ and its subantarctic islands are breeding sites for 50% of the world's species of petrels, shearwaters and prions; 75% of the world's species of penguins and 54% of the world's albatross species. It is essential for global biodiversity that these unique birds are protected," Mr Smith said. "To that end, I shall be submitting later this month an application to the United Nations to nominate the major albatross breeding sites in the subantarctic islands as a World Heritage Site."

"But protection of the breeding areas is only part of the solution to the problems facing these magnificent birds. If we are to prevent further declines in albatross populations, we must also address the very serious problem of by-catch in longline fisheries. Throughout the southern hemisphere, albatross populations are declining, because of interactions with fisheries. Many of the birds that breed in New Zealand spend much of their lives many thousands of kilometres away, and so widespread are the fisheries these days, that nowhere in the Southern Ocean are they free from the risk of swallowing a fish hook."

"The Government is very concerned at the problem of seabird by-catch", Mr Smith said, "and is pursuing a number of initiatives. These include research and monitoring programmes on subantarctic albatross breeding colonies, increased observer coverage of longline fisheries and investigations into mitigation measures that might reduce the number of birds accidentally killed in fishing operations. Some of these programmes are funded through a Conservation Services Levy imposed on domestic tuna longline fishers."

"However, these measures do not address the problem of albatross mortalities in international waters, where the great majority of fishing is carried out, and most of the birds are caught. I know that New Zealand has been working hard in recent months to increase awareness of the seriousness of this problem amongst foreign fishing nations."

" I call upon the countries involved in longline fishing in the Southern Hemisphere to cooperate in, and fund the development of, measures to eliminate the deaths of seabirds. New Zealand and Australia already require mandatory use of bird scaring lines behind vessels, and Japan will be moving to their mandatory use on all their vessels in August. This latest unfortunate event illustrated the need to find more effective ways to protect seabirds. I know that the domestic tuna industry is anxious to resolve this problem, and I hope that New Zealand will be able to take a lead in a major international initiative. Time is running out for the birds."