The devastation caused by long-line fishing
As you may have seen in our film on the website the other night the crew of Odyssey removed a hook from the jaw of a sea turtle they chanced upon. The line attached to the hook was a drop line from a 'Long Line,' one of hundreds of fishing lines that dangle down from a single much stronger rope that can be up to 60 miles long and is supported at or near the surface by floats every few hundred feet. As it felt itself drowning the frantically struggling turtle must have broken the drop line at a point many meters above it. Over the next few days the line must have become a tangled mass of monofilament which by the time we encountered it so encumbered the turtle it could hardly swim. It is not only turtles that are threatened by long lines. Birds are too, particularly albatrosses which get caught as the long line is being deployed over the stern of a fishing boat steaming slowly forward. As each baited hook slides over the stern it is accessible in the ship's wake for a few seconds before a weight attached to its monofilament line pulls it under.
Albatrosses follow long liners and grab the baits before they sink, getting caught by the hook in the process. There is a weight at the end of each down line, and when the albatross can no longer resist its downward pull it drowns. Because stopping the ship to disentangle an albatross would take too long and might tangle the longline, fishermen simply continue on their way, leaving dying albatrosses struggling in their wake. It is now apparent that long lines are decimating albatrosses, up to 30% of some populations die each year. Albatrosses are species that reproduce very slowly. In the case of the wandering albatross, the largest of all flying birds, courtship takes two years before mating ever occurs followed by the laying of the first egg. The chick stays in the nest for over a year (right through the winter).
A Wandering albatross has a wingspread of twelve feet, with the wingspreads of some individuals reported at up to fourteen feet. Because the vast majority of albatrosses live in the windiest latitudes of the southern oceans-vast stretches of sea where there is relatively little land-the vast majority of humanity never sees them flying. When the biologist Robert Cushman Murphy first saw albatrosses around his ship he wrote in his diary: "I now belong to a higher cult of human, for I have seen the albatross." I am one of a relatively small minority of humans who have seen them though. In fact I have spent thousands of hours of my life watching albatrosses soar. Nothing I have seen in Nature is more beautiful. I have seen an albatross fly for one and a half hours without flapping its wings. This form of flight, called dynamic soaring, is a kind of sailing in three dimensions, a means by which albatrosses extract from the wind enough energy to stay aloft. It is something we humans will never be able to achieve-our gliders will never be maneuverable enough.
It turns out that it is easy enough to prevent albatrosses from taking baits behind long liners and drowning, one simply trails a line from a tall pole attached above the stern of the ship and dangles from it junk-things like tin cans, plastic streamers, or pie plates. As these turn, flash, and twist in the wind they apparently frighten the albatrosses away from the ship's wake. There is virtually no cost to employing this means of preventing albatross deaths, and it also benefits the fishermen by keeping albatrosses from occupying hooks on their long lines and thereby reducing their catch. But most fishermen can't be bothered to rig such protective lines, a kind of indolence that may soon cost the rest of us the world's albatrosses. The thought that this most beautiful of birds is being destroyed as a by-catch of longlining simply because people are too indolent to stop it frustrates me utterly, particularly when it would be so easy to prevent. So here is something you and I can do: write to our congressional representative and to the UN requesting that prevention of entanglement become a universal requirement of longliners of all nations. I will return to the subject of albatrosses often, because I feel that together we ought to try to save them. If we really all do it, we can!
© 2000 - Roger Payne