Incidental catch (or bycatch) of seabirds during oceanic longline fishing operations

Advice to the Minister for the Environment from the Endangered Species Scientific Subcommittee (ESSS) on a public nomination to Schedule 3 of the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 (the Act)

1. Name or description of the key threatening process

Incidental catch (or bycatch) of seabirds during oceanic longline fishing operations.

2. Scientific name, common name (where appropriate) of affected listed or native species

The scientific literature and reports to the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA), identify the following native species as affected:

  • Wandering Albatross (all subspecies), Diomedea exulans*
  • Royal Albatross, Diomedea epomophora
  • Black-browed Albatross, Diomedea melanophris
  • Bullers's Albatross, Diomedea bulleri
  • Shy Albatross, Diomedea cauta
  • Yellow-nosed Albatross, Diomedea chlororynchus
  • Grey-headed Albatross, Diomedea chrysostoma**
  • Sooty Albatross, Phoebetria fusca
  • Light-mantled Sooty Albatross, Phoebetria palpebrata
  • Northern Giant Petrel, Macronectes halli
  • Southern Giant Petrel, Macronectes giganteus
  • White-chinned Petrel, Procellaria aequinoctialis
  • Flesh-footed Shearwater, Puffinus carneipes
  • Sooty Shearwater, Puffinus griseus

* subspecies chionoptera has been recommended by the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) Endangered Fauna Network for listing as endangered and recommended for Schedule 1 of the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 by the Endangered Species Scientific Sub-Committee (ESSS).

** has been recommended by the ANZECC Endangered Fauna Network for listing as vulnerable.

3. Statement with regard to the ESP regulations

This nomination has been assessed by officers of the Endangered Species Unit. It has been determined that the information supplied with the nomination meets all the requirements specified by regulation.

4. Nomination support and advice

Please note that this document has had reference to experts who provided comment on the nomination removed.

In addition to the information presented in the nomination the ESSS has considered information contained in over 35 documents (approximately 600 pages) from over 15 national and international sources.

5. Impact of the nominated key threatening process on listed or native species

Albatross species are very long lived species, taking up to ten years to reach sexual maturity and successfully breed. Breeding is a protracted event (some species breed only every second year with chicks taking up to 11 months to fledge) involving very high parental investment and care. While individual breeding success is high, annual production is low and the overall recruitment rate for all species is very low. Recovery from low population levels is slow and problematic. Due to very low recruitment rates, even very low mortalities impact substantially on the population viability of the individual species. Accordingly, even low kill rates due to long line fishing present substantial threats to the survival of albatross species.

The ESSS compliments the fishing industry on their cooperation in implementing the mitigation measures taken so far. However, the trends indicated by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) observer data suggest that the current kill rates may have increased despite reduced fishing effort and consequently fewer number of hooks set by vessels and the implementation of some mitigation measures.

The total number of hooks set in Australian waters south of 30 degrees between 1 January and 31 December 1994 by Japanese tuna fishing vessels was 13 720 283 (data supplied by AFMA). From data gathered by AFMA observers in the same period and weighted to take account of differences between the detected winter and summer kill rates and the proportion of hooks set in winter and summer, it has been estimated that the kill of seabirds on these lines is 4 645 birds. The Australian domestic tuna fishing industry set 2 219 408 hooks in 1994 (data supplied by AFMA). Using kill rates calculated by the Tasmanian Department of Parks Wildlife and Heritage for this domestic fishery, the estimated the kill of seabirds on domestic tuna longlines is 2 108 birds. It is important to note that the AFMA observer data records only those birds, almost always dead, that are hauled aboard on longlines. It does not take account of those birds that are hooked but torn from the hooks before being hauled aboard. These animals may be eaten by sharks, or escape and may die at sea or back at the colony, as has been recorded by French researchers. It has been estimated that birds in this category may be up to 30% of the number of birds hauled aboard. Therefore any estimates of seabirds killed on longlines calculated from the AFMA observer data must be considered to be minimum estimates. When these minimum estimates (6 753) of birds killed on longlines caught in Australian waters south of 30 degrees in 1994 by Japanese tuna boats (4 645) and domestic tuna boats (2 108) are factored to take account of this 'undetected' kill then the estimated number of seabirds caught on longlines in 1994 rises to about 8 700 (assuming an undetected kill of approximately 30%). From the available data, it has been estimated that 75% of the seabirds killed are albatross species with the balance comprised predominantly of species of large petrels and a small proportion of some shearwater species. On this basis the kill of albatross species in Australian waters south of 30 degrees in 1994, ie approx 6 500 birds, may have been around 15% of the total number of albatross estimated to be killed on longlines worldwide.

The Real Time Monitoring Program (RTMP) data collected by Japanese-flagged tuna, fishing boats operating in Australian waters has not been made available to the ESSS. ESSS believes that these data include data on birds killed on longlines. It is not possible for the ESSS to determine if these data show any recent decline in kill rates of albatross on long lines.

There have been marked documented declines in seabird populations throughout the world that are attributable to mortality on long lines.

From studies conducted over the last three decades Weimerskirch and Jouventin observed marked declines in most albatross and giant petrel species breeding in the French austral territories (French subantarctic islands). These declines are due to adult mortality. The evidence points to incidental capture and death on long lines as the cause of this mortality. Weimerskirch and Jouventin conclude that long line fishing presents a major threat for long-lived seabirds in the southern ocean, especially those that frequent tuna fishing areas. They conclude that with the recent development of long lining in the Antarctic and subantarctic waters, in conjunction with the existing Asiatic long line fishery in sub-tropical waters, seabirds are more than ever at risk in the southern ocean.

New Zealand government agencies have projected that the number of breeding White-capped Albatross will decline to extinction within 45 years if the 1990 long line fishing mortality rates continue.

Gales, in Cooperative Mechanisms for the Conservation of Albatrosses, identified nine species of albatross that are caught on longlines in Australian waters, including the Wandering and Grey-headed Albatross. This document formed the substantive part of the whole of government position presented by the Australian Delegation in their Position Paper to the parties to the Convention on the Conservation of Marine Life and Antarctic Resources (CCMLAR) ad hoc Working Group Meeting on Incidental Mortality arising from Longline Fishing. In recent reports to ANCA the nature and magnitude of seabird take on longlines was assessed and a further five native species (petrels and shearwaters) taken incidentally on longlines were identified.

The Action Plan for Australian Birds identified incidental catch on longlines as a confirmed threat to the Wandering Albatross and the Grey-headed Albatross. However, the action plan did not consider the world distribution and numbers of these species. The plan noted that an estimated 44,000 albatross are killed by capture on Japanese southern bluefin tuna longlines annually in the southern oceans.

6. How judged by ESSS to meet the ESP Act criteria

The ESSS judges that the incidental catch (or bycatch) of seabirds during longline fishing meets the criteria for a key threatening process under s23. (3) For the following reasons:

  • the process could cause native species that are not endangered to become endangered [s23.(3)(a)(ii)], in particular it threatens all subspecies of the Wandering Albatross and the Grey-headed Albatross, and could cause up to 12 other native species of seabird to become endangered, unless this process ceases to impact on these species; and
  • the preparation and implementation of a nationally coordinated threat abatement plan is a feasible, effective and efficient way to abate the process. This is demonstrated by the substantial progress that has been made, by industry, the Australian Nature Conservation Agency, the Department of Primary Industries and Energy, the Australian Fisheries Management Authority and other bodies in developing cooperative mechanisms and techniques for addressing this acknowledged conservation problem.

Even if it could be shown that there are currently insufficient data to demonstrate world wide declines in albatross populations to support this conclusion, the ESSS is very concerned by the trends and believes that the precautionary principle as identified in the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (endorsed by First Ministers) is pertinent to this matter.

Supporting this, the Convention on Biological Diversity states that 'it is vital to anticipate, prevent and attack the causes of significant reduction in biological diversity at source' noting that where there is a threat of reduction in biological diversity, 'lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimise such a threat'. The ESSS notes that Australia is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Article 4(b) of the Convention obliges Australia to deal with threatening processes and their effects where these fall within Australian jurisdiction. Article 7(c) obliges Australia to identify processes and activities that have or are likely to have significant adverse impacts on the conservation of and sustainable use of biological diversity, and to monitor these effects. Articles 8(k) obliges Australia to develop and maintain threatened species legislation and/or other regulatory provisions for the protection of threatened species and populations. Article 8(1) obliges Australia to regulate or manage identified threatening processes. Article 10(b) obliges Australia to adopt measures to avoid or minimise adverse impacts on biological resources due to the use of those resources.

Comments from several sources noted that the problem is not one that is confined to fishing operations in Australian waters and that listing would not address the issue beyond Australian waters. The ESSS acknowledges that much will need to be done both within Australian waters and in international and foreign waters. However, ESSS believes that by addressing the problem domestically, in a thorough and coordinated manner through a national threat abatement plan, Australia will be setting an important example and will lead global conservation action to address this widely acknowledged and accepted threatening process. This is consistent with article 14 of the Convention on Biological Diversity that obliges Australia to introduce measures to ensure that significant adverse impacts on biological diversity do not occur.

Comments in some advice provided to the ESSS referred to the existing cooperative measures that are being developed and partially implemented without the framework of the Endangered Species Protection Act. This is not relevant to the consideration of a threatening process under the Act. Listing under the Act presents no difficulty to formalising these existing measures or developing further ones as part of a nationally coordinated threat abatement plan. Indeed, listing will enhance and foster the wider implementation of abatement measures. Listing of the threatening process as a key threatening process will oblige the Commonwealth to cooperatively develop such a threat abatement plan within three years, and will not prevent longline fishing from continuing in Australian waters. The detail required to fully address this threatening process is a matter that will be addressed in the development of a threat abatement plan.

7. Recommendation

That the incidental catch (or bycatch) of seabirds during longline fishing be listed on 'Schedule 3 Key Threatening Processes' of the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992.


  • Gales, R. 1993. Co-operative Mechanisms for the Conservation of Albatrosses. Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, Canberra.
  • Garnett, S. 1992. The Action Plan for Australian Birds. Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, Canberra.