Stopping gillnet bycatch – how do we do it?

Spring is arriving all over Europe, and everyone is looking forward to longer days, more sunshine and wildlife waking up again. I love spring myself, and I’m not a glutton for punishment, but I have been casting my mind back to a snowy week in West Virginia, USA, at the end of January.

It’s not because I’m pining for the cold, but because it was then that we ran a workshop with the American Bird Conservancy focussing on the development of technical measures to reduce bycatch in gillnet fisheries. Working with researchers, fishermen, NGOs and sensory ecologists from across the world, we were looking to go beyond national and species-group silos to discuss innovative ideas to reduce gillnet bycatch – something which we are actively trying to tackle in Lithuania as part of this project.

The core purpose of the workshop was to come up with some specific project proposals to test ideas for bycatch mitigation, ideally with a cross-taxa focus – covering at least two out of three of birds, turtles and marine mammals. If you’re a bycatch geek, we hope to post a link to the full report of the workshop here soon – so keep your eyes peeled. In the meantime, here are few reflections from the workshop from me:

We need to work across species and sectors

Gillnet bycatch is a global issue of major concern – as sea turtle expert Bryan Wallace put it: ‘Net bycatch has the highest cumulative severity across air-breathing megafauna taxa of any major fishing gear category’. There is thus much to be gained by working across species groups. The literature on mitigating this problem is far richer for e.g. cetaceans than it is for seabirds. Ideas that have shown potential for one species (or group of species) could show promise for others – see, for example, John Wang’s work on net lighting for turtles – how might this apply to velvet scoter or bottlenose dolphins?

Something that came up time and again at the workshop was the need to work with fishermen. Fishermen understand their gear, have insights into interactions with non-target species and understand the practical realities of deploying mitigation measures in their fishing operations. This approach is central to what we are doing with the Seabird Task Force, and is an approach that BirdLife truly pioneered with the Albatross Task Force.

We need to better understand interactions with gillnets

Turtles, seabirds and marine mammals often become entangled in nets away from the human gaze, which means our understanding of how bycaught animals interact with gillnets is poor. Better understanding othese interactions – perhaps utilising advancing camera technology – will surely help us unlock solutions. It might allow us to key in on particular aspects of behaviour around nets to reduce the likelihood of entanglement.

We need to approach the problem from a sensory ecology perspective

Or in more straightforward language – we need to understand how species see, hear, feel (perhaps even smell and taste!) the world, so that we can design appropriate mitigation measures. I won’t spend much time on this here, but you can read a blog I wrote about it here – where you can also access the paper this blog was based on.

We need to get out there and test stuff!

The only way we will develop solutions is to get out on vessels and start testing some ideas! Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting slap-dash poor experimentation without proper thought. Well thought-out ideas, understanding the fundamentals of sensory ecology and thinking about the type of interaction an animal has with a net are all important – that’s why I mention them first – but we need to start getting our hands salty and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It’s in that spirit that the Seabird Task Force was founded, and it’s in that spirit that we hope to find solutions to the problem of gillnet bycatch in the Baltic – and beyond.

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