Leigh-Anne Wiig

The Department of Conservation (DOC) is this year embarking on new research into six species of vulnerable Chatham Islands seabirds, with funding from the seafood industry.

The industry contributes around $2 million each year through levies to the Conservation Services Programme. The money from the CSP levy pays for research on seabird and other protected species populations’ mitigation measures and for observers to monitor the fishing vessels.

New Zealand waters and offshore Islands are home to many unique and small populations of seabirds which are vulnerable to getting caught on fishing lines.

Because fishing is one of the biggest threats to our seabirds, part of DOC’s effort is to ensure information is available to help the fishing industry take steps to mitigate the damage.

DOC Director General Lou Sanson says “It’s a win-win situation because as well as reducing harm to seabirds, working together with fishing companies means we can also help their industry become more sustainable. This is important for the seafood industry internationally.”

This year $120,000 will be spent on new seabird research on three species of albatross on the Chatham Islands as well as northern giant petrel, Pitt Island shag and Chatham Island shag. Half of the research money comes from the industry through the CSP levy, with the rest funded by the Crown.

 In the case of the Chatham Islands albatross, DOC researchers will be looking at doing population estimates to determine how many breeding pairs are nesting. This will give a better idea of how big the breeding population is, and whether there has been any decline or growth of the population.

Chatham Islands albatross. Image: Sam O’Leary

“This monitoring is essential to ensure we have a baseline to assess the impact of fishing on seabirds and whether more work needs to be done,” Sanson says.

“If the seafood industry wants to have a sustainable fishery, it needs information about what impact their fishing is having on wildlife.” The nationally at risk Chatham Islands albatross currently only breeds at one site, The Pyramid, a small outcrop south of Pitt Island. This restricted breeding means they’re at increased risk from any type of threat. “That’s why establishing a second breeding colony on the Chatham Islands mainland is so important,” says Sanson.

“There is some great success through working with the Taiko Trust and landowner Bruce Tuanui on an albatross transfer project – it’s only the second albatross transfer project in the world.”

It’s the second year the Taiko trust has relocated about 60 chicks to Point Gap on the Chatham Islands mainland, with the hope they’ll return as adults and breed there. The local fishing company, Chatham Island Food Co has also got behind the project, donating four tonnes of fish and squid a year to feed the albatross chicks.

Without this contribution, along with freight sponsored by Air Chathams and local fishing company Cannister Fishing providing their skipper and boat to ferrying albatross between islands, the Taiko Trust say this work wouldn’t be possible.

All of this sponsorship and support highlights a successful partnership with local business, fisherman, landowners and conservation community groups to achieve good outcomes for conservation. The Department has also supported this work through the DOC Community Fund which granted funds for the predator fence to protect these wonderful birds.

As well as research into individual bird species, the Conservation Services Programme levy also covers the cost of fisheries observers employed by the Ministry for Primary Industries. DOC purchases some of their time to observe seabirds and other protected species interactions.

“These observers are important because they tell us how well individual fishing vessels are adhering to seabird mitigation regulations, plus they document bycatch and monitor seabird abundances. They are also a vital source of information about what extra and innovative efforts crews are taking to reduce bycatch risk,” Sanson says.

“My staff are always looking at ways to enhance existing mitigation techniques which include developing practical and effective tori lines and streamers to deter birds diving for baited hooks or hitting trawl warps. They’re also researching and developing new mitigation methods, such as devices to shield and sink hooks out of the reach of birds during setting.”

Another success of the Conservation Services Programme is the deployment of seabird liaison officers. Since 2013 DOC has run a liaison programme where liaison officers provide ongoing in-person contact with fishers to help address questions, resolve issues and foster a more collaborative approach to implementing bycatch mitigation measures.

The advice ranges from helping fishers write seabird management plans, to showing crews how to test tori lines on their vessels. The liaison officers can help operators tailor seabird bycatch mitigation features to their individual vessel because what works for each boat can be different. They also explain what birds are important from a conservation point of view and provide updates on research to vessels.

Lou Sanson says “Through this liaison programme we have been able to achieve an understanding of why it’s important to work together. It’s been particularly successful with the snapper and bluenose fisheries in the Hauraki Gulf and the East Cape.”

“Seabird bycatch is a serious issue, and I’m delighted at the relationship forged with the seafood industry which shows you’re taking this issue seriously and doing something about it.”