Protecting globe-trotting seabirds – Expert Reaction

New research is highlighting the need for internationally-minded policies to protect albatrosses and large petrels, as they regularly fly in and out of danger on the high seas.

The research, which includes New Zealand data, tracks more than 5,000 individual albatrosses and petrels from around the world and links them to areas with different protection policies.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the study. 

Paul Scofield, PhD, Senior Curator Natural History, Canterbury Museum and Adjunct Professor, Geological Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:

Note: Dr Scofield is a co-author on this paper.

“This paper was a huge collaboration using data collected by a number of New Zealand researchers and many others from around the world that aimed to identify which fisheries and which seabird species are at risk from so-called high ocean fisheries.

“New Zealand researchers placed GPS and geolocation devices on the backs of endangered seabirds on the Chatham Islands and sub-Antarctic and established where they foraged and where they would be interacting with fisheries.

“The issue with pelagic seabirds such as albatross that is identified in this paper is that even though species breed in one country’s territorial waters, they can go anywhere in the world! Our work showed that most seabirds leave New Zealand waters at some stage in their life cycle. Some go thousands of miles. For example, Chatham Island Albatrosses go to the Humboldt Current in Chile and Peru in the winter time.

“The open ocean, far from land, is the wild west as far as fisheries are concerned. Our birds are going there and are dying and we have little idea how many or why.

“You can have the best mitigation measures in New Zealand waters, but if migratory species are not protected in other nations’ territorial waters and in the open ocean, then species will become extinct.

“The New Zealand results are just a small part of a larger project managed by NIWA and funded by the New Zealand Department of Conservation’s Conservation Services Programme (CSP).

“CSP provides a rare example in the global fishing industry of a transparent and accountable process where industry is legally required to contribute to the costs of research relating to its environmental impacts. Conservation services levies have funded the development of mitigation devices, provided advisory officers to New Zealand and overseas fisheries, and developed management measures that aim to contribute to reducing the current rates of by-catch of protected species.”

No conflict of interest.

Edin Whitehead, Doctoral Researcher, University of Auckland, and Student Representative Trustee, Northern New Zealand Seabird Trust, comments:

“What I appreciate most about this paper is the direct link between space use by seabirds at a global scale and the geopolitical connections between their home nations (where they breed) with other nations, high-seas areas, and regional fisheries management organisations. It’s all very well to have the research describing where seabirds go, but to put it in the context of what international relationships need to be built for their conservation is hugely important. Having this information laid out explicitly makes it actionable, so that we can prioritise advocating for change at an international level.

“It also highlights how complicated it is to put in place effective conservation measures for highly mobile marine animals: how do we protect species that regularly cross from different national jurisdictions to the high seas? How do we manage and regulate the international seascape to preserve biodiversity?

“We need to push hard at a national scale for greater marine protection, but we also need to drive international agreements to protect seabirds when they’re outside our national jurisdiction, which can be a large proportion of their lives. National efforts to protect seabirds at their breeding grounds can be completely wasted if we don’t also consider the impacts of unregulated fisheries, which are the greatest threat to some of our most endangered seabirds like the Antipodean albatross.

“Aotearoa New Zealand is home to more species of breeding seabird than any other country, so we have our work cut out for us to protect them at a local and international level. It’s important to note that this analysis has only been done for breeding seabirds, and for many albatrosses and petrels the juvenile/non-breeding proportion of the population can be substantial as they take up to six to 10 years to mature. These birds may have different distributions to breeding birds, which haven’t been captured in this research, but they are just as vulnerable to threats at-sea.”

No conflict of interest.

Associate Professor Joanna Mossop, Law Faculty, Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, comments:

“The Beal paper is the latest in a number of papers emphasising the connectivity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (such as high seas) and areas under national jurisdiction (such as the exclusive economic zones of countries). The authors are correct to note that there is often inadequate management of human activities impacting on marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. Although some regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) and fisheries arrangements have implemented measures to minimise the incidental catch of these important seabirds, there are many that have not.

“As the article explains, there is a treaty known as the BBNJ Treaty that’s currently being negotiated in the United Nations for the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. The negotiations were supposed to have concluded last year, but were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The treaty will cover a range of issues, including marine genetic resources, marine protected areas, environmental impact assessment and capacity building and the transfer of marine technology. Although the treaty is wide-ranging in scope, there is a limit on its ability to deal with fisheries, due to the General Assembly instruction that the treaty must ‘not undermine’ existing treaties and institutions. An important question still to be resolved is whether the treaty will actively exclude matters relating to fisheries entirely, or whether there may be the ability for the new treaty to influence decisions made in RFMOs that apply to the protection of marine biodiversity in general, such as by-catch rules.

“Regardless of the final shape of the BBNJ treaty, the key action to protect seabirds in areas beyond national jurisdiction needs to happen in RFMOs. It is possible for those organisations to implement measures that reduce the by-catch of marine birds, such as using weights on baited fishing lines that pull them below the surface and out of sight of the birds. However, that usually requires the agreement of most, if not all, states fishing under the RFMO, and this can be difficult to achieve. The conclusion that countries with deep connections to albatrosses and petrel should be advocating for greater protection in the various RFMOs is sensible.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Joanna is a non-official member of the New Zealand delegation to the BBNJ Treaty negotiations. However, this should not affect any ability to comment independently on these matters.”

Karen N. Scott, Professor of Law, University of Canterbury, comments:

“This is important research that authoritatively demonstrates the significance of the high seas as an important habitat for albatrosses and petrels, ‘among the most threatened of all bird groups’, and highlights serious deficiencies in international regulation.

“The most important instrument currently under negotiation for protecting biodiversity on the high seas has the potential to contribute to seabird conservation through a network of high seas marine protected areas (MPAs) but, as the authors confirm, these MPAs are not likely to address fisheries, and by-catch is the most significant high seas threat to these birds.

“It is up to states such as New Zealand to work within regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) to address by-catch, and New Zealand has been very active within the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which has had significant success in reducing seabird by-catch over the last decade in the Southern Ocean.

“But, New Zealand also needs to lead by example. Currently, only around 0.4 per cent of its entire maritime zone is subject to MPA protection, well below the national average of just over 17 per cent of national waters. Internationally, we have missed the Sustainable Development Goal 14.5 target to conserve 10 per cent of the global marine environment by 2020 (the current figure is 7.65 per cent) and the next target is protection of 30 per cent by 2030.

“This research demonstrates the importance of not only area-based protection, but also developing integrated and connected regulatory and management measures across the high seas and national maritime zones in respect of activities such as fishing.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I have no financial, professional or personal conflicts with any of the authors cited on this paper.”