Preparing for the Bird Wintering Season

Winter is approaching, and lots of sea ducks that have bred further north will gather in the Lithuanian Baltic Sea. Before the colder period sets in, many Baltic Sea gillnet fishermen are focussed on catching plaice – when colder weather arrives, fishermen will switch to catching cod as they come closer to shore, and it is in this fishery that wintering birds are at risk of bycatch.

This is the critical time for our project, when months of preparation will come to fruition. Our collaborating fishermen are lined up, we have checked and tested our data collection protocols with them, and our observer team are ready to work with them to test net panels, which we hope will reduce seabird bycatch in gillnets.

The last steps are the production of our modified gillnets with net panels attached and the finalisation of special permissions from the Fisheries Service to conduct our trials. The materials are now ready, and we hope the net maker we are working with will have all 5,600m of these modified nets completed by the end of next week. The nest will be with modification of warning panels 60cm x60xm.

Similarly, the special permissions should be secured in the next fortnight. So, by mid-October, not long before most of the wintering seaducks have arrived, our fisherman will have the chance to test them in real life – some of the first fishermen in the world to work in this sort of trial!

This winter, 10 different fishermen will test our modified nets. Three of them will test nets in the open sea on big boats departing from Klaipeda port, and the remaining 7 will be departing from different areas of the coast with smaller vessels. In addition, the Fisheries Service is offering to help obtain further bird bycatch data from fisherman  not directly involved in our project. This will be supported by our recent engagement with gillnet fishermen at the Costal Fisheries Association annual meeting, where we were able to highlight the bird bycatch issue and encourage fishermen to provide us with records of bycaught birds. Although these ad-hoc reports from fishermen will not form the core basis of our data collection, they will help us build an overall picture of seaduck bycatch in Lithuania.

Jūrinių paukščių priegaudos mastai Lietuvos Baltijos jūroje

Atėjus vasarai dauguma nardančių ančių iš Lietuvos pajūrio pasitraukė į savo perėjimo vietas į Sibirą Šiaurės Rusijoje. Bet perėjimo sezonas yra tik trumpas periodas jūrinių paukščių gyvenime tarpsnyje, perėjimo vietose paukščiai praleidžia tik 4-5 mėnesius metų eigoje, o likusį laiką paukščiai būna žiemojimo vietose. Praėjusią žiemą klimatas Baltijos jūroje buvo ypatingai šiltas ir didelė dalis žiemojančių jūrinių ančių pasiliko žiemoti šiauriniuose Baltijos jūros regiono vietose, todėl paukščių skaičius Lietuvoje nebuvo didelis. „Vykdant žiemojančių paukščių apskaitas Baltijos jūroje ties Kuršių nerija, buvo suskaičiuota apie 3500 nykstančių nuodėgulių“ – sako projekto biologas Vytautas Eigirdas. Įprastinėmis žiemomis Lietuvos pajūryje žiemoja virš 5000 nuodėgulių.

Ši žiema buvo pirmoji kai po ilgos pertraukos buvo vėl vertinami jūrinių paukščių priegaudos mastai. Projekto vykdytojams bendradarbiaujant su vietos priekrantės žvejais buvo surinkti duomenys apie tinkluose atsitiktinai įsipainiojusios ir žuvusius paukščius. Projekto biologas Tomas Pocius teigia, kad 2014/2015 m žiemą iš 10 pajūrio žvejų buvo gauta informacijos apie 53 jūrinių paukščių sugavimą. Didžiausią žuvusių paukščių dalį sudarė nuodėgulės (Melanitta fusca) ir ledinės antys (Clangula hyemalis), taip pat buvo sugauta keli rudakakliai narai (Gavia stellata) bei laibasnapai narūnėliai (Uria aalge) (1 pav.).


Daugiausiai nuodėgulių žvejų tinkluose žuvo įsipainiojus į menkėms skirtus tinklus pastatytus virš smėlėto dugno 12-30 metrų gylyje ties Kuršių Nerija. Nuodėgulių pagrindinis maistas žiemos mėnesiais yra dvigeldžiai moliuskai, gyvenantys smėlėtame dugne. Kaip tik tose vietose rudenį priekrantėje ties Kuršių nerija vykdoma intensyvi menkių žvejyba, naudojant 50-55 mm akies dydžio statomuosius tinklaičius. Tokio dydžio tinklai ypatingai pavojingi antims dėl galimo įsipainiojimo. Daugiausiai ledinių ančių buvo sugauta pavasarinės paukščių migracijos metu iki 4-7 m gylyje ties Palanga, kur šios antys įkliuvo į 18-22 mm akies dydžio tinklus skirtus stintų žvejybai.

Projekto metu surinkti rezultatai skyrėsi nuo prieš 10-15 metų surinktų duomenų, kai didžioji dalis iki 2/3 priegaudos būdavo ledinės antys. Tai galėjo nulemti Baltijos jūroje žiemojančių ančių ženklus gausumo sumažėjimas ir jų mitybos vietų pasikeitimas.

Žinant svarbiausias skirtingų rūšių nardančių paukščių priegaudos vietas Lietuvos Baltijos jūros pakrantėje galime taikliau pasirinkti tinkamiausias vietas išbandyti naujos modifikacijos tinklus, mažinančius paukščių priegaudą, sako projekto ornitologas ekspertas Julius Morkūnas.

Diving seabird bycatch assessment in the Lithuanian Baltic Sea- 2014/2015 preliminary information

As summer arrived this year many diving seabirds migrated from the Baltic Sea to breeding grounds in Russian Siberia. But this is just a short period of their life, as they move to their breeding grounds for 4-5 months, and the rest of the year they spend on wintering ground.

The 2014/2015 winter period in the Baltic region was mild, and lots of diving birds stayed further north than usual, where ice-free water was present throughout the entire season. Our colleague Vytautas Eigirdas, in the Lithuanian Ornithological Society found that there were still significant number of wintering Velvet Scoters in the Lithuanian Baltic Sea along the coast of the Curonian Spit. Counts found at least 3500 of this species, which is currently considered endangered globally. During cold winters in the same area you can find more than 5000 wintering Velvet Scoters.

During the 2014/2015 winter we were able to assess the number of these diving birds caught in fishing nets in Lithuania. This is the first time in a number of years that we have been able to do this work. Together with project partners – the coastal fisherman- we collected data on seabird bycatch. Looking at the data collected from this preliminary work, 53 birds were recorded as caught in nets, the majority being Velvet Scoters – 45%, Long-tailed ducks were the second most regularly caught species – 39.6%, and there was also small numbers of Red-throated divers and Common guillemots caught.


For the most part, Velvet Scoters were caught near the Curonian Spit, in depths of 12-30 meters where the sea floor has a sandy bottom. These birds spend the winter in this type of habitat foraging on clams which inhabit the sandy bottom seafloor. In autumn this place is popular for the Cod fishery, which use 50-55mm mesh size nets. As fishermen use nets with big mesh sizes, this could affect the number of birds caught. Long-tailed ducks were mostly was caught near Palanga in water depths of 5-7 meters. In early spring time this region is popular with fishermen catching Smelt, and is also the stopover site for Long-tailed ducks. To catch smelts the fishermen use 18-22mm mesh size nets.

At this stage of our work, the data collected has been different compared to those collected 10-15 years ago, as the most regularly caught species is now Velvet Scoter, which was previously found to be the second most regularly caught species. Previously it was estimated that 2/3 of bycatch was from Long-tailed ducks, which no appears to no longer be the case. These changes could be related to changes of wintering sea ducks number in Baltics, or perhaps to the degradation of the feeding ground habitat. Now large numbers of Long-tailed ducks are common in the Lithuanian coast only during the spring migration. This demonstrates that knowing the key sites and timing of the birds movements and the fishing patterns and bycatch susceptibility in the Lithuanian Baltic sea will help us in trying to change the fishing gears to reduce seabird bycatch in nets.

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.

Lessons on gillnet bycatch: the US case study

Gillnet fisheries are not uniform in nature across the globe – different species are targeted via different mesh sizes, fishing techniques and positioning of the net in the water column.Gillnet bycatch is also not a problem restricted to a single country or even sea basin – there are recorded instances all over the world. What we hope, however, is that a suite of mitigation measures can be devised to reduce bird bycatch wherever gillnet fishing occurs. The work of the Seabird Task Force in Lithuania is our first step on this path.Some of the only research done to date on seabird bycatch mitigation in gillnet fisheries was done in the Puget Sound, USA, by Ed Melvin, a well-respected seabird bycatch specialist based at Washington State University. His work, back in the 1990s, resulted in the development and adoption of modified bycatch-reducing nets in the sockeye salmon fishery that operates in the Sound.

 In September 2014, Rory Crawford, Senior Policy Officer with the BirdLife International Marine Programme, and Rex Harrison, a salmon gillnet fisherman from Filey Bay in the UK, went to the Puget Sound on a ‘GAP2 Exchange’ to meet with sockeye fishermen, the management authorities, and Ed Melvin himself – all with a view to understanding more about what knowledge we might be able to take back and apply to other fisheries. This video, produced by GAP2, neatly summarises Rory and Rex’s trip, and highlights BirdLife’s approach to finding solutions to bird bycatch – one of collaboration and mutual understanding with fishermen.Many thanks to GAP2 for funding Rory and Rex’s exchange trip, and for promoting collaboration between fishermen, scientists, NGOs and policy makers.

Autumn and winter in the field


[Turimas lietuviy]

The Lithuanian Ornithological Society together with Birdlife international is involved in actions to reduce seabird bycatch in gillnet fisheries. Our field work this autumn and winter has focused on working together with local fishermen to trial some new types of fishing nets. Instead of using normal fishing nets we are trying modified gillnets for cod fisheries. The nets are modified by changing the upper part of the net to be more visible by using nylon.Diving birds should have better visualization while diving to see these nets.

The aim of the study is not to ban the coastal gillnet fishery but to reduce bird bycatch without altering the fishery significantly.

In Lithuania, the project team – three bird observers/specialists – have honed their skills to learn about fish species. The reason for this is that our team join the local cod fishermen on board their boats on trips to the open sea to collect data on fish catch and bird bycatch. Our team is counting the different fish species caught in our modified fishing nets and from regular nets, measuring and weighing the fish catch. The aim is to look if there is a difference in fish catch depending on net type.

In autumn, there is an intensive fishery for cod along the Lithuanian coast, and many coastal fishermen are targeting this species, so lots of our survey work was done during autumn. The winter period is more difficult as the fishermen are changing their fish target from cod to smelt. The weather conditions in winter also became problematic. When temperature falls below -10 C (14F) the Baltic Sea begins freezing over, and nets become covered by sea ice.

In our next blog post we will provide additional detail on our field season, preliminary findings and next steps.