Operational conservation. It sounds like some kind of spy programme for old people. I discovered it refers to the albatross. With a wingspan reaching three-and-a-half metres wide, the enormous, gliding, feathery pin-up of the seabird is also a police bird in disguise.
Albatrosses love to visit tuna-fishing boats. So much so, the females will fly two-thousand miles from their nesting grounds on the sub-Antarctic islands of the Crozet Islands to the Indian Ocean. The tracking data on their satellite tags shows that they head straight for the tuna boats. Why? Dr Henri Weimerskirch, the French guy at the ZSL talk, gave us the lowdown.
Albatrosses love tuna bait. No big deal you’d think.. a little bit of bait can’t go amiss for one hungry oceanic seabird – except for this one small detail. There are thousands of hooks in a longline fishery. Miles of fishing line. The clue is in the name and the longline lives up to its clue. When these miles of lines are deployed, a mass of hooks hang just underneath the sea surface to entice the tuna to come. This is the albatross’s fix. After flying two-thousand miles, it cries, ‘Show me the tuna bait!’ and launches itself into the water.
Cue entanglement in the line… and no chance to breath again. Albatrosses drown this way in their hundreds of thousands every year. Populations have crashed since the 1980s. For the baby bird, Mum and Dad will fly off to have a snack, but they dont always come home.
So, the albatross’s secret is out. Bright white head with big soft eyes, this beautiful bird is a fast-food junkie. The pin-ups are always the worst. Dr. Henri Weimerskirch has been trying to help them help themselves. He can’t stop albatrosses from visiting these fast-food death traps but he’s been watching them go, and tagging them in their thousands for a number of years. He’s discovered the boats that Crozet Island albatrosses visit are often in the Indian Ocean in the EEZ fishing-rights waters around France’s Reunion Island.
These waters, it turns out, are rife with illegal fishing. Such a large area of the Indian Ocean is impossible to monitor- especially as the illegal vessels deliberately turn off their own tracking systems – their Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) when they approach. Unless patrol boats are actually in viewing distance, the illegal boats go undetected.
Dr Henri Weimerskirch racked his brain. Thousands of tagged birds fly off, are tracked along the way and their satellite tags suddenly stops pinging. Dead birds. But correlated against the VMS system, there no boat involved. Although it was highly likely these birds died from longline entanglement with a fishing vessel, there was no evidence to prove a fishing boat was in the same location.
What, Dr Henri wondered, did boats still use that could track their position, even if they turned their VMS off. The answer pinged back at him. Sorry for the pun. It was radar. Boats, and especially fishing boats, still use radar to track their course. They use it to avoid collisions and work within their waters. The answer was right there.
He checked with the bird’s trackers and found he could indeed adapt their satellite tags to mark for radar. When an albatross reaches the radar signal of a fishing boat, its tag would share the information with the trackers. Suddenly the bird was acting as a legal marker as well as, well, a bird. The person following the bird’s movements could check against the radar data and see whether the boat was displaying its VMS information. If it wasn’t, it was likely to be fishing illegally. The information would be passed on and the French navy could respond. Ha!.
So, there it is. Operational conservation. A new type of animal conservation. Operational as in useful. Conservation as in please stop dying.