Forest & Bird is right – seabirds do need conservation. And that is exactly what the seafood industry is striving to achieve.

The Ministry for Primary Industries’ National Plan of Action – Seabirds, which the seafood sector subscribes to, notes the need to balance the adequate protection for the tens of millions of seabirds living within our Exclusive Economic Zone with the important part of our economy that the fishing industry represents.

New Zealand is renowned as a special place for seabirds. More species of seabirds – notably albatross, petrel, penguin and shag species – breed here than anywhere else in the world.

The mortality target the seafood industry is ultimately working to is zero.

That is an aspirational goal, just like a zero road toll, but the unfortunate reality is there will likely always be some casualties.

That does not make it any more acceptable and the good news is mitigation measures have been increasingly adopted and are working.

These include weighting lines to make them sink quicker, setting lines at night, dyeing baits, storing offal and using bird-scaring devices to screen hooks and wires. 

There is absolutely no evidence that New Zealand fishing activities are driving albatross or any other species to extinction, as Forest & Bird claims.

It is a pity that they have not acknowledged the Department of Conservation resourced work in the tuna fleet in the past year to greatly improve that sector’s performance in reducing risk.

While the Antipodean albatross is acknowledged as declining that is due to unknown causes of mortality occurring outside New Zealand waters when the birds are in their migratory mode across the eastern pacific. When they forage for their chicks in the New Zealand zone they are doing so successfully. Furthermore, in the case of the Southern Buller’s albatross, which is endemic to The Snares and Solander Islands, surveys show population growth since 1970. 

The number of observed seabird captures in the commercial surface longline fishery in 2015-16 was 138, according to MPI.

That is captures, rather than mortalities – some birds are released alive.

That figure was extrapolated across the entire fleet of 35-40 vessels to produce an estimated capture of 1009 birds by species.

This will not be accurate as both fishing effort and seabirds operate in different places at different times and the science based approach to estimate captures properly takes account of this as “back of the envelope” work cannot.

The 2016 mortality figures included the death of 39 albatrosses caused by an individual fisherman on the West Coast who failed to comply with mandatory seabird mitigation measures.

That was a disappointing event and the skipper concerned was prosecuted, lost his job and was sentenced to 300 hours’ community service.

Seafood NZ supported the prosecution taken by MPI.

As the June issue of the Seafood NZ magazine details, accidents can and do happen and the lessons learned need to be and are acted on.

The Dong Won 701 had a gear failure earlier this year while trawling for squid east of Stewart Island.

That resulted in 101 seabirds being drowned in a twisted net on the surface.

The incident was recorded by a Ministry of Primary Industries observer, who counted 76 sooty shearwater (muttonbirds) and 25 white chinned petrels. 

‘We’re feeling really bad about what happened and we’re very sorry about it,” Tae Wang, chief executive of the vessel operator DW New Zealand said. 

“We have been fishing here for 28 years and have never seen anything like this before.”

He said crews had been instructed that if there ever was a similar gear failure, the net was to be taken fully out of the water where possible.

There are no accurate estimates of the total New Zealand sooty shearwater population, but it is estimated to be 21 million birds based on assessments of breeding birds on The Snares (where they are fully protected) and islands off Stewart Island (where they are harvested under customary permits).

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report on native birds released last month did make for disturbing reading.

“Most of our native birds are in trouble,” Commissioner Dr Jan Wright said.

She singled out three in particular danger of becoming extinct – kea, the world’s only alpine parrot; wrybill, the world’s only bird with a beak curved to one side; and whio, a duck that paddles through rough water like a white water kayaker.

But in the case of seabirds, while black petrels and the Antipodean wandering albatross remain a concern, it said there had been some progress.

“For instance, deepwater trawlers are using devices such as bird-scaring lines and bafflers to keep birds at a distance,” the report said. “As a result, the number of albatrosses killed by flying into steel cables in the squid trawl fishery has halved. Almost all skippers on commercial bottom longline fishing boats in the Hauraki Gulf have completed training on how to avoid catching seabirds and are now involved in a camera trial to see how effective their efforts are.”

In 2004 New Zealand adopted a plan to reduce the incidental bycatch of seabirds in fisheries, across commercial, recreational and customary. The plan was updated in 2013 and a further update is underway and scheduled for completion in 2018. The initial advisory meeting, which included MPI, commercial fishers, scientists and eNGOs, was held this week.

A seabird liaison programme, funded and managed by the Department of Conservation under a levy on commercial fishing vessels, has been developed and progress is being monitored.

Two experienced operators, John Cleal and Gary Levy, have been recruited under the direction of seabird expert Richard Wells, all crews have been trained and a risk management plan applied to each vessel.

Far from being unconcerned, the seafood industry is demonstrating its commitment to reducing seabird mortalities even further.