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One of the crew members on Ryoei, the longliner I went to sea with, wearing a Save the Albatross Campaign t-shirt. One of the crew members on Ryoei, the longliner I went to sea with, wearing a Save the Albatross Campaign t-shirt.

 

Many seabirds, particularly albatrosses and petrels, have undergone rapid population declines, making them the most-threatened group of birds and leaving many species close to extinction.  These declines are often closely linked to the expansion of commercial fisheries in seabird feeding areas, combined with the impacts of invasive alien species at nesting colonies. Many seabird species range widely across the world’s oceans, so seabird conservation issues need to be addressed globally.

 

 

The RSPB hosts the BirdLife International Marine Programme, which works to address these declines.  Influencing international policy is vital for securing conservation management for far-ranging seabirds – but working on practical solutions with fishermen and others is needed to find and implement the right management measures.

In response to the huge numbers of seabirds being killed accidentally in longline and trawl fisheries, the BirdLife International Marine Programme launched the Save the Albatross Campaign in 2000.

 

 

Every year longliners set about three billion hooks - and globally an estimated 300,000 seabirds are killed every year, of which 100,000 are albatrosses.

When baited hooks are set from the stern of the vessel, before they sink they are still visible near the sea's surface. Foraging birds spot them and try to grab the bait before it sinks then can become hooked, dragged under and drowned. This is obviously bad news for the birds, but also the fishermen, who would rather catch fish.

But now there is a fantastic solution available called Hookpod  a brilliant new invention that catches fish, not birds. Designed by Devon and trialed extensively by the RSPB Albatross Task Force on behalf of BirdLife International it has huge implications for saving the albatross from extinction if the world's pelagic longline fishing fleets can be persuaded to adopt it.

The hookpod is small and innovative - it encloses the point and barb of the hook as it enters the water, making it impossible for birds to become hooked. The pod has an air pressure mechanism which opens on reaching fishing depth and the baited hook is released to begin fishing. In short it keeps birds off hooks, opens underwater, has a light in it and means fishermen can catch fish and not birds.  When the fishing is finished, Hookpods are simply pulled onboard, closed up again and stored along with the hooks and line in standard fishing bins ready to be used again. It’s very durable and long lasting, meaning there is reduced waste and increased efficiency.

See the Hookpod website for updates on its adoption progress through the world's pelagic longline fleets

Troubled Waters

A book and exhibition project facilitated by Birdlife International in support of the Save the Albatross Campaign

 

 

Longlining. Woodcut print Longlining. Woodcut print

 

With their vast extent, changing moods of calm and storm; sheer beauty and otherworldly sense of place, the world’s great oceans are largely beyond most people’s experience and imagination. Home to a small number of hardy professional mariners, merchant seamen, fishermen, and a few pelagic explorers, only a privileged few experience the deep ocean at first hand.  Most of us remain insulated from its true nature unless storms blow onshore and chaotic seas strand hapless seabirds onto our beaches, or far inland. For much of the year, however, seabirds stay far from land and out of sight way beyond the horizon of Coleridge’s ‘painted ocean’. Out there they wander huge distances in a constant search for food, effortlessly riding the winds and waves, and ranging far from their cliff and island nesting sites, sometimes for months on end.  

Bringing these birds into people’s reach is at the heart of the Troubled Waters project, generating a powerful visual appreciation and understanding of seabirds’ pelagic existence that is rooted in the artist’s life-long fascination for the sea and seabirds.  Having journeyed a number of times across the Southern Oceans, the aim is to paint a portrait that brings the open sea vividly to life in the mind’s eye and imagination.
 

Shy albatross caught in trawl cable.  Watercolour & pencil 42cm x 45cmShy albatross caught in trawl cable. Watercolour & pencil 42cm x 45cm

Seabirds, notably albatrosses have become increasingly threatened over the past 20 years, and at a faster rate globally than any other species of birds.  The threats are many and varied, but the most critical problem is the hundreds of thousands of birds snared accidentally as bycatch on long-line fishing vessels.

The seabird losses first noted over 20 years ago have catalysed urgent international efforts to reverse the declines, most notably through the formation of BirdLife International’s Save the Albatross campaign and an Albatross Task Force. The result has been a substantial reduction in seabird mortality - to almost negligible levels in some well-policed fisheries. However, with unregulated fishing interests still operating beyond the reach of international treaties and boundaries there is still much to do, and it is urgent work if some critically endangered albatrosses are to avoid extinction.  A core strand within Troubled Waters, therefore, is to get aboard long line and trawl vessels, working alongside fishermen, and task force observers, to witness the collision of birds and fishing interests at sea and at first hand.  

The project is also a personal creative response because over 35 years ago I got to know albatrosses well as a field assistant on a seabird research programme on Bird Island, South Georgia.  Every day we lived our lives tuned to the biological rhythms of the birds, and when I wasn’t working, I spent every spare moment sketching these wonderful birds.

On board the fishing vessels, it was agonizing to realize that some of the albatrosses dying on longlines were ‘my’ birds! – I had got to know them individually as a young artist-scientist in the late-1970s.  Acutely aware that albatrosses have life-spans similar to our own, it was humbling to sit by nests intimately studying the structure of bills and the details of plumage, noting the colours and patterns of moulting feathers and, on one particularly cold afternoon, I warmed my freezing hands under the belly feathers of an incubating wanderer!  

Wandering Albatross on the nest, a sketch I made on Bird Island in 1977  Wandering Albatross on the nest, a sketch I made on Bird Island in 1977

Wandering albatrosses displaying, Bird Island 1978Wandering albatrosses displaying, Bird Island 1978

 

 

Along with studies of the birds, I made drawings about their lives at sea as we crossed the Southern Ocean each season between the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.  There were opportunities to gather notes and sketches about the colours and shapes of icebergs, the moods of the sea, and about many of the other enigmatic species of those cold latitudes.  My numerous folders of field paintings, sketches and drawings are a unique archive that has lain quietly dormant in my studio drawers. Along with new material, those early drawings are contributing to an exhibition in support of the Save the Albatross Campaign.

It was a recent opportunity to return to South Georgia that actually provoked the idea for Troubled Waters.  Setting out in 2009, and seeing everything again, but in a new light, and working with a set of personal tools sharpened by 35 years as a professional artist – as well as new tools, skills, and perspectives.  That visit generated a wealth of material and ideas too.  Realising the intensely personal archive could be combined with contemporary artistic insights and inspiration; I worked with BirdLife to ensure I could also spend time embedded at the cutting edge of the conflict between seabird and fisheries.  With both the archival and new Antarctic material to back up this unique exposure, I began to believe the strands could be woven together to engage viewers and readers in an experience both visceral and compelling; one that offers insights into our understanding of the oceans, and which inspires new engagement and identification with an extraordinarily urgent conservation crisis.  The Troubled Waters book and exhibition is the result of this life-long journey.

Sorting hooks and longlinesSorting hooks and longlines

 Chaos of seabirds scavenging offal behind trawlerChaos of seabirds scavenging offal behind trawler