Leigh longline fisherman Dave Kellian has long worried about protecting the seabirds that teem in New Zealand waters.

Twenty years ago, he experimented with setting his baited longline hooks and worked out that if they were released at a depth of 10 metres, seabirds would be safe from being hooked.

But there were a few hurdles to overcome, not least setting the line, ensuring the baits were not whipped off and stopping the turbulent backwash from lifting the line back up.

After a lot of trial and error in Australia and here and considerable cost, a new bait setting device is about to undergo sea trials, the $350,000 cost met by the industry through Fisheries Inshore New Zealand, the Auckland Zoo Charitable Trust through the Southern Seabird Solutions Trust, Fisheries New Zealand and the Department of Conservation.

Southern Seabirds is a collaborative alliance between the fishing industry, World Wildlife Fund, DOC, the Ministry for Primary Industries, and the Te Ohu Kaimoana.

New Zealand is one of the most challenging places in the world to fish without catching seabirds, because of the huge diversity of species and their varied foraging behaviours.

Our remote land and waters are the global centre of biological diversity for seabirds, with 84 species breeding here.

A range of albatrosses and petrels, which forage behind tuna longline vessels during the line setting process, are at particular risk.

The innovation was announced jointly by Fisheries Minister Stuart Nash and Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage this week.

This device could be a game changer, not only in New Zealand, but in time, in international fisheries as well, according to Nash.

“Often the best solutions are those developed by people involved in the industry,” he said.

“I’m very pleased we can help get this device through its final testing phase.”

Nash and Sage saw the project as an excellent example of industry and conservation agencies collaborating to achieve better results for our unique seabirds.

The device is being installed on a Nelson-based fishing vessel Sarda owned by Altair Fishing and will be trialled for six weeks during normal fishing in the Bay of Islands targeting bigeye tuna, overseen by a trained engineer.

It consists of a stern-mounted, hydraulically operated and computer controlled device that catapults baited hooks underwater in a steel capsule. The baits are flushed from the capsule by water pressure through a spring-loaded bait release door.

Fisheries Inshore NZ chief executive Dr Jeremy Helson said the bait setter initiative was another aspect of wider measures to mitigate the risk to protected species.

These include three major fishing companies and environmental NGOs working collaboratively to reduce the risk to the threatened black petrel.

While extensive mitigation measures are already practised, a programme has also been developed in conjunction with MPI and DOC to have all vessels fitted with an individual plan and the crew trained in risk reduction techniques.

The vessel-specific plans are retained on board and their implementation assessed by Fisheries NZ observers.

“We share our seas with birds, marine mammals, protected fish and marine reptiles and, on occasion will unavoidably capture some,” Helson said.

“We recognise these impacts and will do all we can to reduce harm to a minimum.

“Our vision is to get as close to zero bycatch as possible through innovation and smart fishing."