Albatross Aid in the Fight Against Illegal Fishing

Researchers are using GPS trackers attached to Albatross to collect data and help monitor illegal fishing activities around the world.

With the largest wingspan of any bird (up to 11 feet) Albatross have evolved to soar above the sea. They can traveling around the globe at speeds over 50 miles per hour and can cover large parts of open ocean in just minutes. Some species are known to spend years at sea without touching land. Researchers decided these ocean wanderers could do something that humans and current technology cannot–track illegal fishing vessels.

The global fishing industry is one of the largest markets in the world. However, it has been reported that a fifth of the fish on the market are a product of illegal, unreported, and unregulated catches. This is estimated to cost the global economy between 20 to 30 billion dollars annually. Unfortunately, since the ocean takes up 70% of the worlds surface it is very hard for land based law enforcement agencies to patrol it. Boats are tracked through a voluntary system where they report their location through an automatic identification system (AIS), which is easily turned off and on. Meaning that its fairly easy for boats to go undetected while fishing in protected waters.

U.S. Coast Guard Operations Specialist using AIS and radar to manage vessel traffic.
Credit: Wikipedia

While ships don’t have to use AIS, they do have to emit radar in order to navigate and avoid collisions with other vessels. This radar signal doesn’t reach far enough to be picked up on shore, however it can be detected within a few miles of the ship. This is where Albatross come in. Albatross are known to follow fishing vessels in hopes of scoring a snack, and can spot them from nearly 20 miles away. Scientists outfitted 169 individual Albatross of different ages with transceivers that only weigh two ounces. These were used to track boat coordinates which were beamed to a satellite that would log the info and cross reference against AIS data.

The Albatross team was able to monitor over 20 million square miles, and would pick up a radar signal whenever they were within 3 miles of a boat. Out of the 353 fishing boats detected 28% had their AIS turned off, a finding that surprised researchers. “No one thought it would be that high” stated Henri Weimerskirch, a marine ornithologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research. This percent became even higher when looking at international waters where 37% of boats operated with AIS off.

Fishing boat surrounded by Albatross in Port Fairy, Victoria, Australia.
Credit: Ed Dunens

Due to the fact that the birds transceivers only picked up radar, the boats identities still remain a mystery. It is now up to the officials to determine what the boats legal status is, and whether or not to take further action. However, logging boats whereabouts means that researchers can build a map of potential illegal fishing spots which can help bring future crimes to justice. This data also can inform future policies that aim to prevent collisions between ships and seabirds, or aid in conservation efforts. This new technique allows teams to track illegal fishing in some of the most remote places in the world. With the hopes of utilizing other large bird species, ocean monitoring may one day be from a birds view.

Source: Smithsonian Magazine
Feature Image: Juvenile Black-browed Albatross off the coast of Valparaiso, Chile. Credit: Ade Russell

About Isabelle Everhart

Isabelle Everhart is recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz, with a B.A. in Environmental Studies and A.A. in Liberal Arts from Santa Barbara City College. In her studies she found a passion for sustainability, conservation, and marine-related species. Her free time includes surfing, hiking, and exploring new places. She is excited to intern for the Island Conservation Communications team, to help spread scientific knowledge and an urgency for conservation.

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