Albatross Task Force


Trawler and seabirdAlbatrosses are amongst the most threatened groups of birds on the planet. Since the 1990s, the impact of longlining on albatrosses has become a global conservation priority, resulting in the development of the Global Seabird Programme (GSP). While the GSP is addressing an impressive range of seabird conservation issues, a major focus was, and remains, saving albatrosses from extinction by working with fishing industries and national governments and, wherever possible, to find innovative and win-win solutions to seabird bycatch. This, in a nutshell, is the work of the Albatross Task Force (ATF).

BirdLife South Africa hosted the first ATF team in 2006 – there are now another 7 in other countries (Namibia, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Argentina). By the end of 2008 (to date) it was clear that the work was worth it – the ATF had notched up a fantastic 8570-95% reduction in seabird bycatch!

The South African ATF team primarily works with three fleets within our local waters: the deep-sea hake trawl fishery, the pelagic longline fishery (made up of local and foreign Asian fishing vessels) and the hake longline fleet.


Breaking news!

Albatross deaths down by 99% in local trawl fishery

A great achievement for BirdLife South Africa's efforts in reducing seabird deaths in the SA trawl fishery. In 2008 it was estimated that 18 000 birds were dying in this fishery each year. In April 2014, BirdLife South Africa released a paper that reports on how that figure has changed. It's pretty dramatic - for all seabirds the reduction is of the order of 90%, but for albatrosses its more like 99% fewer mortalities. This is thanks to the Albatross Task Force team's efforts, and a very cooperative fishery that worked with the ATF to ensure the risks were addressed. The fishery has Marine Stewardship Council certification, and that was an important factor in ensuring this fantastic outcome.  Read more pdf Trawl seabird figures 2014 (119 KB)

The research is available from The full citation is:

Maree, BA, Wanless RM, Fairweather TP, Sullivan BJ & Yates O. 2014. Significant reductions in mortality of threatened seabirds in a South African trawl fishery. Animal Conservation 17: published online


What we do

ATFThe main work of the ATF instructors is done at sea when we join fishing trips to collect data and conduct experiments. The companies accommodate us on a voluntary basis and for this we are always grateful. These trips help us to understand the realities of the fishing industry.

We collect seabird abundance and interaction data during fishing operations. This helps us to understand ways we can prevent them from getting caught in fishing gear.

By trying different mitigation measures at sea and improving on them we try to adjust practical solutions so fishermen can easily implement them at sea.

The main idea of the ATF is that we are here to work with the fishermen towards finding and implementing solutions to the problem of seabird bycatch. Fishermen don't want to see a dead albatross on the hook (longline) or a drowned petrel taken by a net cable (trawl). We all have to put our heads together and keep on working towards creating a safe environment for these impressive birds.

Major successes to date

Tori lineThe South African ATF successfully lobbied to have tori lines (bird-scaring lines) declared mandatory in the South African hake (Merluccius spp.) trawl fishery (a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)-certified fishery). Bird scaring lines are devices to keep birds away from the danger area (around the cables in this case) and consist of a mainline with colourful streamers that flap in the wind at the back of fishing vessels. Despite some teething problems, industry realised that it was not in their best interests to do nothing about unnecessary seabird deaths and, before long, compliance with the measure was high. This resulted in an immediate and significant decrease in seabird deaths associated with trawl warp interactions.

The tuna and swordfish longline fishery in South Africa is divided into two groups. Local permit holders, who use heavy gear and target mostly swordfish, and a foreign-flagged fleet operating in joint ventures with South Africa, who use much lighter gear and target tunas. It is the latter group that was identified as having a significant seabird bycatch problem. There were some very good permit conditions in place for this fishery for several years, but they had very little impact on reducing seabird bycatch – probably due to a lack of legal, agreed-upon actions that could be taken against vessels that failed to comply with the permit conditions. Then, in 2007, the ATF was involved in implementing new permit conditions, in a desperate attempt to ensure the fishery complied with the preventative measures in the existing permit conditions. A seabird bycatch 'cap' was placed on each vessel, and fishing would end for that vessel for the year, once that cap was reached. This precautionary catch limit or ‘cap’ still applies for this fishery, with the two bycatch limits in place, the first at 25 birds, after which addition measures are imposed on the vessel (extra wights on the line to ensure a faster sink rate and a second bird scaring line) and the second at (a total) 50 birds per vessel per annum. The upshot was that bycatch of albatrosses in the foreign-flagged fleet decreased by an estimated 85% in 2008 compared to 2007. The level of bycatch within this fishery has remained low and within the limit laid out in the South African National Plan of Action for Seabirds. Other measures in place in this fishery are night setting (not compulsory within the domestic fleet), the use of bird scaring lines and addition weight to the fishing line (voluntary until the ‘cap’ has been reached). The South Africa ATF also partakes (together with national government and local fishery representatives) in discussions and a review of these fishing regulations at the end of each year.


Weighted hooksSeabird bycatch measures (such as extra weighting, fishing at night and bird scaring lines) have been extremely successful in many fisheries worldwide, reducing seabird bycatch by up to 90%.  Despite these advances, pelagic (mid-water) longline fishing, targeting tuna and swordfish, has remained a fishery that no one has been able to address…until now! Thanks to some innovative minds in BirdLife International and FishTek (a UK-based company), there lies a promising ‘silver bullet’ for seabirds…the Hook Pod…which is being put through its final paces right here in South African waters! This magical device is designed to easily attach to pelagic (mid-water) longline gear and prevents incidental seabird capture by protecting the barb of the hook during the setting operations. Once the fishing gear sinks to a predetermined depth, the pod opens (using a pressure-release system), releasing the hook to begin fishing.  The pod is then simply retrieved during hauling operations closed and is ready to be reused on the following set. The critical ingredient to effective bycatch mitigation is to provide fishermen with an option that is easy to use, cost-effective and has operational or economic advantages to their business. The hook pod has all these ingredients. The hook pod has the potential to virtually eliminate seabird bycatch in industrial pelagic longline fisheries worldwide!

On land work
  • Bird Mitigation Plan project: hake trawl fishery

It is understood that each vessel class within the trawl fleet is different and cannot necessarily comply with the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of fishing regulations (also known as permit conditions) that regulate the fishery. Originally a project of the Responsible Fisheries Alliance, this project is now run by BirdLife South Africa’s ATF. It  is a collaborative approach that involves non-governmental organizations (NGOs, including WWF-SA), fishermen, skippers of vessels, onshore fishing managers and CEOs of fishing companies to come together and come up with the best available seabird mitigation options that each vessel can adopt (while still complying with these legal requirements). An assessment is done on board each vessel and agreed upon by all parties, which is then adopted in a formal document.

  • Workshops

We conduct training workshops with fishermen, fisheries observers and governmental compliance officers. In these workshops we discuss the impacts that modern fishing has on the marine ecosystem and how all stakeholders can help in assuring a better future for all our marine life by implementing a responsible approach to fisheries.

  • Harbour visits

A key ATF strategy is to build personal relationships with fishermen. We visit them at the harbour, an environment where they feel at home. We discuss their recent trips, any issues that came up, and plan future sea trips with them. We also deliver bird scaring lines and discuss other mitigation measures with them.

In an attempt to try to prevent future incidents, a cartoon has been created to educate people and shows very simply how to handle a live bird with a hook in it.  If done properly it is hoped that it will result in the birds escaping without much injury.

Download the cartoon pdf How to handle a hooked live bird (369 KB)


Ocean View is a coastal village near Cape Point where there is a very high level of unemployment, due in some ways to the demise of the line-fishing industry. Within this community is the Ocean View Association for Persons with Disabilities (OVAPD) who indicated a willingness to become involved in the manufacture of bird scaring lines. This association provides disabled people from in and around the local community with a place where they can interact, learn skills and possibly make a small income. This project which was first started in 2006, aimed to provide fishing industries with bird scaring lines at an affordable cost, while at the same time providing upliftment and employment to individuals in a fairly impoverished community. In 2011, BirdLife South Africa assumed responsibility for managing the project when a second round of funding was received from Total South Africa. A variety of materials are used to create the lines including cable ties, garden hose, rope and plastic strapping. The lines are sold to fishing companies, with a small proportion of the money being given back to the Ocean View Centre. This project is an excellent example of an environmental NGO, a community centre, large commercial fishing companies and a corporate sponsor all work together towards a common goal!


Seabird Bycatch fact sheets

Simple and inexpensive mitigation measures can be highly successful in reducing seabird bycatch.

BirdLife have produced a series of Seabird Bycatch Mitigation Factsheets which describe the range of potential mitigation measures available to reduce seabird bycatch in longline and trawl fisheries. The sheets assess the effectiveness of each measure, highlight their limitations and strengths, and make best practice recommendations for their effective adoption. They are designed to help decision-makers choose the most appropriate measures for their longline and trawl fisheries.

For more information, please contact Bokamoso Lebepe


The ATF teams successes could not be achieved without the following sponsors: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, BirdLife International, Total South Africa, Rand Merchant Bank, Van de Venter Majapelo (VVM), Cornelian Society, Zest for Birds and the Gregory Hawarden Trust.