Australian Antarctic Division seabird ecologist Dr Graham Robertson has won a prestigious Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship.
Dr Robertson is one of only five 2004 recipients internationally of Pew Marine Conservation Fellowships - the world's most prestigious award honouring and investing in applied ocean conservation science and outreach.
Each Pew Fellow receives US$150,000 over three years to carry out innovative, interdisciplianary projects related marine conservation. The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation is a program of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, USA.
The prize will allow Dr Robertson to continue vital research on ways to reduce seabird mortality in longline fisheries. This work is important for seabird conservation and for the efforts of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the newly-ratified Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP).
The research will take place in the Patagonian toothfish fishery in southern Chile where the so-called Spanish method of fishing is used widely in the Southern Ocean, and is implicated in the deaths of many thousands of seabirds annually.
Chile is the preferred location because of the prevalence of Spanish system vessels operating in hake and toothfish fisheries, the accessibility of fishing grounds, the history of collaboration with the University of Southern Chile and the Chilean Antarctic Institute, the large size of local black-browed albatross population (around 100,000 pairs), high levels of seabird mortality and knowledge of the ecology of local albatrosses and their interactions with Chilean longline fisheries.
Dr Robertson said that findings from his recent trials on integrated weight (fast sinking) longlines in New Zealand were an important part of this long-term research in ways to eliminate the killing of seabirds in high seas fisheries.
Federal Parliamentary Secretary responsible for the Australian Antarctic Division Dr Sharman Stone has congratulated Dr Robertson, saying his name was synonymous with this pioneering research and that his Pew Fellowship was well deserved.
"It is a sad fact that the risks to seabirds such as albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, are increased by longlines that sink too slowly.
"These baited lines take too long to sink and as they float out behind the fishing vessels become a deadly lure to seabirds. Some estimates put mortality rates at several hundred thousand birds annually, so it makes sense to do all we can to avoid these senseless deaths," Dr Stone said.
"Dr Robertson has been developing methods whereby longlines will sink as soon as they enter the water. However, it is an intricate process involving some trial and error. It's not just a matter the lines sinking quickly enough to avoid seabird bycatch, but also ensuring that the fish catch is not compromised."
Dr Robertson's research on integrated weight lines began in 1997/98 when he conducted seabird deterrent trials with a Falkland Islands company licensed to catch Patagonian toothfish.
"Experiments included attaching external longline weights which produced a much faster sink rate and greatly reduced the death rate of black-browed albatrosses. He then joined forces with a Norwegian longline manufacturer to develop longlines with weight integrated into the fabric of the lines. Trials involving these lines have been conducted since June 2002 in New Zealand, with drastic improvements in seabird survival rates."
Dr Stone said that Dr Robertson's method had proved so successful it would be considered for adoption by CCAMLR.
"Dr Robertson's work to improve longline fishing practices is integral to saving the lives of the huge numbers of seabirds that are now dying unnecessarily."
Dr Stone said that Dr Robertson was highly respected throughout the scientific world not just for his work to improve the lot of seabirds in longline fishing regions but also for his research into the ecology of emperor penguins.
"Graham Robertson has been long recognised internationally for his seabird research and his inclusion as a Fellow of the prestigious Pew Institute for Ocean Science is confirmation of the great esteem in which he is held," Dr Stone said.
Ratification of the key international treaty conserving albatrosses and petrels in the southern hemisphere was confirmed today by Environment Minister Elliot Morley.
The Agreement will help to introduce measures to reduce incidental catch of seabirds in longline fisheries; improve the conservation status of these species of bird by protecting breeding habitat, control the alien species that are detrimental to the birds and their eggs; and support research into the effective conservation of the albatross and petrel.
The UK's ratification is a key step for this Agreement as a number of important breeding sites for albatrosses and petrels can be found within the UK's Overseas Territories including the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, South Sandwich Islands and British Antarctic Territory.
Attending the Waterbirds Around the World Conference in Edinburgh today Mr Morley said:
'I am delighted to be able to announce today that the UK Government has just become the 6th state to ratify the Bonn Convention's Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. Ratification reinforces our commitment to this treaty - the UK having played a key role in drafting the Agreement and was amongst the first to sign it. Our aim, together, must be to make real changes to the fortunes of these amazing birds which connects peoples across oceans and between continents and captures the poetic imagination.'
His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, gave a stirring speech about the problems facing albatrosses on the final day of the Waterbirds around the world conference, which took place from 4-7 April in Edinburgh, UK.
Up to 100,000 albatrosses are killed each year through indiscriminate longline fishing. The Prince told of his special affection for these birds and how he had first learned of their plight through the efforts of BirdLife International and other non-government organisations. In 1996, just three albatross species were threatened, but today all 21 species are at risk of extinction.
Efforts to tackle the problem are underway, and His Royal Highness, Prince Charles, welcomed the international Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP), which came into force two months ago, saying it was a huge achievement. ACAP includes legally binding commitments by nations ratifying it to protect seabirds, both at sea and on their nesting grounds. These include the compulsory use of mitigation measures, such as setting lines underwater or only at night, trailing a bird-scaring line and prohibiting offal discharge while fishing, to reduce numbers of birds accidentally caught during fishing operations.
The Prince declared that he couldn't have been more pleased to hear that the UK Fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley, had earlier announced during the conference that the UK had joined the five other nations to have ratified ACAP already. However, His Royal Highness noted, many countries still needed to ratify ACAP, yet some of the most important appeared unlikely to do so.
The Prince also noted the problem of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, which appears to be getting worse. More than 1,000 'pirate' vessels operate under 'flags of convenience' and act outside international laws. They are believed to be responsible for around a third of all seabird deaths caused by longlining. Of particular concern are those targeting Patagonian Toothfish, which is sold under many 'consumer-friendly' aliases, such as Chilean Sea Bass in the USA and Mero in Japan, and is itself under severe threat because of over-fishing.
His Royal Highness agreed with the conclusions of a Greenpeace report, which recommended closing ports to these illegal ships, closing markets for their fish, and penalising the vessels' owners and operators. Referring to United Nations efforts to tackle pirate fisheries through an International Plan of Action, The Prince spoke of the strenuous efforts by several countries to water down the draft provisions, thereby missing vital opportunities to take effective measures, for example against the use of chartered vessels in illegal, unreported and unregulated operations.
His Royal Highness concluded by saying that the albatross may be the ultimate test of whether humankind is serious about conservation, and wondered if we would just remain blind to the appalling tragedy unfolding, out of sight and out of mind, in the vast foam-flecked spaces of the Southern Ocean.