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What is a seabird bycatch? A missed opportunity for a fisherman, and usually a fatal outcome for a bird.

On November 29, 2022, a panel discussion “Experiences and recommendations for reducing seabird bycatch” was held in Split, organized by Sunce association, which brought together representatives of fishermen and various institutions of Croatia.

Organized as part of the project LIFE Artina – “Network for the preservation of seabirds in the Adriatic”, the aim was to present the results of testing modified fishing gear to reduce seabird bycatch (SB),based on which the discussion on measures to reduce SB on fishing gear would be encouraged, with a focus on endangered species – Yelkouan shearwater, Scopoli’s shearwater and Adouin’s gull.

Project manager of the LIFE project Artina Željka Rajković from BIOM presented the goals and results of the project so far, and Sven Kapelj presented the endangered bird species that the project dealt with, and the activities related to their conservation. In front of Sunce, Ana Miletić presented the activities that Sunce, as a partner in the project, carried out related to the assessment and reduction of the impact of fishing gear on seabirds.

During the panel discussion, representatives of the Directorate of Fisheries, the Institute of Oceanography and Fisheries (IOF), fishermen, BIOM and Sunce discussed the following topics:

  • Data collection on seabird bycatch
  • Seabird bycatch mitigation measures
  • Future policies to reduce seabird bycatch

– The main limitation when proposing specific mitigation measures for SB is that we do not have enough spatial data on the interactions between fishing activities and seabirds. In the future, we hope to have better insight into national data on the movements of fishing boats and more information on accidental catches. – said Željka Rajković from the BIOM association and LIFE Artina project manager.

Lack of data on bycatch

Fishermen are obliged to submit data on fishing and bycatch through logbooks and reports. The obtained data are used exclusively for the purpose of collecting data with the aim of sustainable management of marine bioresources, scientific research and monitoring the traceability of fish and other marine organisms, and for the purpose of submitting data to international institutions.

– Seabird bycatch occurs. This is the opinion of fishermen and institutions; however, the amount of data is insufficient to determine whether it occurs often or rarely. The survey we conducted among fishermen concluded that fishermen do not report information about bycatch in the logbooks, mostly out of fear that sanctions due to accidental catches and new fishing restrictions will follow. With this panel, we wanted to emphasize the need to collect data, and call on institutions to encourage fishermen to report data – said Ana Miletić from Sunce.

– Among fishermen, there is mistrust regarding the data that is reported, and it is necessary to simplify the data entry in the logbook. Current logbooks represent an additional burden for most fishermen, and they do not want to deal with it – pointed out Antonio Đivoje, a fisherman from Lastovo.

In front of the Directorate of Fisheries of the Ministry of Agriculture, Ivana Vukov explained that a draft of the new Regulation on the form, content and manner of keeping and delivering the data on catch of commercial fishing at sea is being prepared, which aims to improve the system of reporting data on catches and a gradual but complete transition to the electronic collection of catch data.

– IOF is responsible for collecting biological data in the framework of scientific monitoring carried out by scientific observers on fishing vessels. Through the new Regulation on authorized observers in fisheries, which is also being drafted, the method of collecting data and the behaviour of observers will be regulated. When adopting each regulation, a committee is established, which includes representatives of the fisheries sector through chamber systems. Also, each regulation is published on e-consultation where the interested public can give their comments – concluded Vukov.

– Without relevant data, it is difficult to draw any conclusions. All measures should be made only and exclusively based on relevant data. The fisherman may not know the name of the species, but he remembers the birds very well where they are most often found, whether they are in the same place every year or have not appeared for some years. Scientific observers cannot cover everything and that information that only fishermen can get because they are at sea every day is extremely important to us. Unfortunately, due to the lack of data, all measures are taken late, when new processes have already started to take place. First, important areas for seabirds should be identified and then the damage repaired at different levels – said Sanja Matić-Skoko from the IOF.

– Our fishing fleet is too old, fishermen work on old, unsafe boats. Fishermen could be encouraged to use the logbooks more in such a way that in return they get points that will bring them some kind of benefit. For example, points can be used to get incentives for improving ships – added Nedo Ivanović, a scientific observer.

Seabird mitigation measures

Several activities and measures are implemented around the world to reduce the seabird bycatch. Fishermen themselves are looking for solutions to reduce damage to fishing gear, losses of bait on hooks and preserve the balance of the marine ecosystem, thus ensuring targeted fish catches. With the LIFE Artina project Sunce, in cooperation with fishermen from the islands of Brač, Vis, Korčula, Lastovo and Vinišće, tested measures of using modified fishing gear, i.e. LED lights for nets, additional weighting for demersal longlines and hookpoods (devices for releasing the hooks of pelagic longlines under the sea).

– Fishermen try to avoid catching birds and already have some of their own methods, and they have long recognized additional weights as a technique that will help them, while hookpods have proven to be quite complicated to set up and use. Other methods that fishermen already use should also be tried, such as releasing a line behind the boat with a fender tied to it, thus scaring the birds. It would be useful to test this method together with additional weights and see those results – said Dario Vrdoljak, IOF.

The results of testing the measures are very valuable for the Ministry, and while the situation with longlines is clear, more research is needed for other fishing gear, while taking into account the value of modified fishing gear and that the adopted mitigation measures should not significantly affect the time frame, fishing practices and fish catch.

– There have always been  interactions between fishermen and birds, but our goal is to reduce the interaction to the lowest possible level and find a way to simultaneously increase its value with resource management measures that lead to a reduction in the total catch. The inclusion of fishermen and non-governmental organizations in discussions through the so-called “bottom-up approach” has proven to be successful and we believe that it can get results in this case as well. Support measures under the new fund will enable the implementation of new research, which will be the basis for future management measures. – said Ante Mišura, director of the Directorate of Fisheries, Ministry of Agriculture.

– The measures should come from fishing practices and be economically profitable. We believe that research should cover more types of fishing gear and a larger number of fishermen. This project did not cover the spring part of the year, also few fishermen participated in a small area – emphasized Vukov from the Directorate of Fisheries, and Hrvoje Čeprnja from the BIOM association agreed with her and emphasized that this testing was a kind of pilot project and that the results of surveys with fishermen showed that SB is happening, so work should continue to solve this problem.

– We are the only ones in Europe who have tested hookpods. We decided to test them after exhaustive literature research and data collection. In Australia they achieve excellent results, but they have not been tested enough times here in Croatia. Also, the manufacturer is ready to make hookpods for Croatian hooks that are much smaller – added Čeprnja.

– Future tests of these and other modified fishing gear should be carried out earlier in the year, when the birds are most active, and before adopting mitigation measures, it should be though about the functionality, practicality, and profitability of individual measures – emphasized Miletić.

Education of stakeholders in fisheries

It is important to explain to fishermen that they are our eyes and ears at sea, said Hrvoje Čeprnja from BIOM and emphasized the importance of education.

– It would be good to implement training for observers of the social aspect so that they can more easily build relationships with fishermen. Fishermen, on the other hand, need to be educated because a large number do not recognize sensitive species, nor do they know how to handle accidental catches of these species. We have already conducted a series of workshops on this topic through projects, which received excellent feedback, and we should continue with this – said Čeprnja.

A tool for better education of stakeholders will be a brochure for fishermen about bycatch of sensitive species, which Sunce and BIOM worked on, and which the Ministry will present through a series of workshops next year. Nedo Ivanović (IOR) pointed out that education should be done for all stakeholders in the fishery and even customers. We still encounter protected species at buying stations and fish markets. If they refused these types of catches, then the fishermen would also return them to the sea.

Designation of new Natura 2000 sites for seabirds

The goal of the LIFE Artina project is to create preconditions and declare new marine conservation areas important for birds (SPA) in Croatia, and develop conservation measures for these areas.

– Through the project, we identified new important areas in the Adriatic for Yelkouan shearwater, Scopoli’s shearwater and Adouin’s gull, applying the results of our research and the recognized methodology of the BirdLife International organization. Further, it is necessary to work on declaring these areas as part of  Natura 2000 in Croatia and defining conservation measures that will ensure that birds have enough places to feed and rest in these areas. It is in the interest of both fishermen and birds that the bycatch of these species is as small as possible, so this is a good example on which further cooperation can be built – said Rajković, from BIOM.

– What I would emphasize as a biologist-ecologist is that we should think about the entire ecosystem. Think about all the pressures, such as tourism, pollution and fishing, and work together on solutions – Sanja Matić Skoko from the IOF concluded.