The winter has brought the usual mix of seabirds to coastal Lithuania – we recently counted more than 8,000 waterbirds in our winter census. Most of these were threatened Velvet Scoters, with around 6,000 counted in sandy-bottomed sea areas off the beautiful Curonian Spit. Sadly, not all these ducks will see the Spring. We have already recorded Velvet Scoters, Red-throated Divers, Long-tailed Ducks, and Common Scoters as bycatch in the cod fishery. Since late October, we have collected 80 drowned birds from the 10 fishermen we are working with.
It’s heartbreaking to see such wonderful (and threatened!) bird perish, but these fishermen are at the forefront of our collaborative efforts to see if we can reduce this toll by testing high-visibility net panels. In spite of some tough sea conditions, we have managed to collect data from around 30 paired sets so far – a pair being a set of modified nets with panels versus a ‘normal’ set of nets.
While the data needs to be fully analysed, the preliminary results are encouraging – bycatch is around 20-30% lower in the modified nets, and there does not appear to be a significant difference in the fish catch.
Arunas Grigaitis, one of the skippers we are working with, said: “We do not want to catch birds, our aim is fish…it’s sad to see birds drowned into nets; they also damage the nets, and it takes additional time to take them out. I’d use modified nets – there is only a slight difference in fish catch”
We still have more data to collect from the cod fishery over the next few weeks while winter draws to a close. In Spring, we’ll analyse all the data collected across the season and see if the bycatch reductions and any catch impacts are significant.
Personally speaking, I’m glad that conservationists and fisherman have found a way of communicating and working shoulder to shoulder. It’s been especially great to have the cooperation of the recently-formed coastal fisheries and recreation association. The trusting relationship we have means that many of the smaller vessels owners self-report their bycatch, doing the data collection themselves. When fishermen start to see bird bycatch as a problem not just in their own nets, but more widely, they start to think about how to reduce it, even suggesting their own ideas. For me, that’s really inspiring!
Next autumn/winter, the Seabird Task Force team will probably explore some other types of bycatch mitigation. As there is still no best practice for reducing bird bycatch in gillnets, the more we can learn about new potential measures the better.
In the meantime, if your Lithuanian is good, it’s worth checking out some of the news coverage we got in some of the main news webpages and daily newspapers in Lithuania (links below). Best of all, there was some great coverage on the project on national TV- http://play.tv3.lt/programos/tv3-zinios/699106?autostart=true – skip to around 20:50.