The seafood sector is supporting a National Plan of Action to protect seabirds.

Submissions on the proposed plan, which will be in place for five years and be reviewed annually, closed last week.

The joint Fisheries New Zealand/Department of Conservation 2020 plan has a vision of striving for zero fishing-related seabird captures.

The seafood industry is committed to that vision and has actively worked towards it, contributing funds and resources to a number of mitigation measures, with more in train.

These include individual vessel plans, tori lines to scare birds away from longline hook and trawl wires, controlling offal disposal, seabird smart workshops for skippers and crews, setting at night when seabirds are less active, using weighted hooks and lines that sink faster and hookpods to prevent birds accessing the baits, researching into underwater bait setting devices, voluntarily closing areas to avoid seabird captures and identifying areas to fishers to avoid foraging seabirds.

The Deepwater Group and Fisheries Inshore New Zealand in a combined submission said the incidental captures of seabirds had halved over the past 15 years – a trend industry seeks to continue.

The aspirational goal was zero harm to seabird populations and zero fishing related captures but with millions of seabirds in our waters, some captures are inevitable.

Even so, responsible fishing requires mitigation of its effect on all protected species.

The fact seabird captures have been steadily falling is acknowledged in the 2019 Ministry for the Environment/Statistics NZ Aotearoa environmental stock take.

Of an estimated 346 seabird species worldwide, almost half live at some time in our 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, the world’s fourth largest.

The NPOA has the objectives of continued reductions in interactions with seabirds; healthy seabird populations; greater research and information; international engagement (many of our seabirds migrate outside New Zealand waters); and the continued implementation of risk mitigation plans on vessels.

The industry fully supports this approach.

The estimated number of seabird captures are calculated by Fisheries NZ based on observer data and vessel reports.

MPI and DoC observer coverage has increased in the deepwater to about 48 percent of all fishing activity.

In the Southern Ocean squid fishery, it is close to 100 percent and in the Ross Sea toothfish longline fishery it is mandatory to carry observers on all vessels.

In the inshore and highly migratory fisheries, observer activity continues to be focused on areas of high risk to protected species.

Actual mortalities are lower than the number of captures – some birds are released unharmed.

The most frequently captured seabirds are also the most abundant. DoC estimates there are more than 18 million sooty shearwaters (commonly known as mutton birds and harvested commercially), nearly one million white chinned petrels and 500,000 white capped albatrosses.

Seabirds face numerous threats in addition to interactions with fisheries.

The plan lists these as including predators, disease, fire, weeds, loss of nesting habitat, competition for nest sites, coastal development, human disturbance, commercial and cultural harvesting, volcanic eruptions, pollution, plastic and marine debris, oil spills and exploration, heavy metals or chemical contaminants and global sea and air temperature changes.

Recreational fishers may also be capturing significant numbers of seabirds, as many as 40,000 a year, according to an independent study by Dragonfly Data Science.

This includes birds tangled in fishing lines and birds being hooked.

About three quarters are released but the survival rate is unknown.

Daryl Crimp’s The Fishing Paper and Hunting News details in its current January issue practices to reduce harm.

These include taking bait off hooks, keeping boats free of offal, being careful with braid and sabiki bait rigs, using water pistols to scare off aggressive birds around boats, netting hooked birds and handling carefully in a wrapped towel and crushing or removing the barbs from hooks before easing them out of a captured bird.