The Ocean

Picture of Russian fisherman on vessel with seabirds

WWF is working with Russian fisheries to reduce bycatch of birds.

Photograph by Yuri Artukhin

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

This story is part of a special series on Ocean Innovations.

The Kamchatka Peninsula juts out from eastern Siberia, where it is bounded by the Sea of Okhotsk to the west and the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea to the east. "The Sea of Okhotsk and western Bering Sea are very rich in marine life and fairly pristine," explained Heather Brandon, a senior fisheries officer for the Arctic region at WWF (World Wildlife Fund).

"Lots of animals go there to mate and rear their young, from marine mammals to fish," she said.

Kamchatka has only 322,000 people in an area roughly the size of Japan, and it is largely undeveloped, although there have been creeping threats to its marine environment, according to Brandon. These include oil and gas drilling, mining, laying of pipelines across sensitive salmon streams, illegal fishing, and an industrial fishery "that is only just beginning to participate in the global marketplace and adapt to global industry standards," said Brandon.

During the Soviet era, Kamchatka was largely isolated from much of the world, and the region has been slow to open up. "The idea of sustainable fishing is relatively new there," she added.

Now, WWF is working to educate Kamchatka fishermen about the latest sustainable technologies and connect them to interested buyers around the world. "In Russia money talks, and we have demonstrated that if they use sustainable practices they will make more money," said Brandon.

Hook, Line, and Streamer

Brandon is working with a team led by Sergey Rafanov, the Kamchatka field office director of WWF Russia, to help fishermen in the region reduce bycatch of seabirds, especially the short-tailed albatross. "They are incredible birds. They can lock their wings so they aren't flapping but glide over the ocean, spending very little energy, but dipping down to grab a fish or squid," said Brandon.

The short-tailed albatross can glide over the waves for thousands of miles, but it is considered endangered in its North Pacific home, in part because early 20th-century collectors hunted it for its feathers.

To reduce albatross and other seabird bycatch, WWF convinced a local fishing company to attach streamers to its boats. "We showed they could save $800,000 a year and reduce bycatch by over 80 percent," said Brandon.

To set streamers, fishermen run nylon line from the boat to a buoy that is about 150 feet (46 meters) behind. Strips of plastic tubing are then hung from that line. "Seabirds see that as a wall; they don't think they can dive through that," said Brandon. Farther down the fishing line, the hooks sink deep enough that the birds don't dive for the bait.

Reducing seabird bycatch puts more money in a fisherman's pocket, explained Brandon, because it reduces the number of hooks that get their bait stripped by hungry birds or that have snagged birds instead of fish. Streamers therefore increase the opportunity to land valuable fish. Streamers are already common among longline fishermen off Alaska, thanks to U.S. federal mandates, but they were little known in the Russian Far East.

Several Russian fishing companies are interested in learning more about the streamers, "especially if that opens up new sustainable seafood markets to them or they can save money," said Brandon. "The hard part is getting captains and crew to consistently deploy the streamers because it is extra work for them, so we have to maintain a relationship with them and also with the company leadership."

Reducing Drift-Net Bycatch

Another potential incentive for reducing bycatch is a Russian law that imposes a fine for killing protected marine mammals and seabirds. However, enforcement of the law requires government observers on vessels and an accounting of bycatch rates, both of which have been lacking in Kamchatka, according to Brandon.

Another fishery in the region that uses large-scale drift nets produces high rates of bycatch, said Brandon. That gear is prohibited in the U.S. and on the high seas, but in eastern Russia ships can set out multiple drift nets that are each two and a half miles (four kilometers) long, for a total length of 20 miles (32 kilometers) of net per boat. They sit at the surface and go down about 26 to 32 feet (8 to 10 meters) deep and function essentially as a wall of netting, catching everything that swims into them.

"If boats don't come check them quickly, everything that gets caught dies," said Brandon. "Seals, porpoises, sea lions, fish, seabirds, they are all usually not released alive. WWF Russia refers to large-scale drift-netting as Walls of Death."

The practice kills an estimated 150,000 seabirds and 1,000 to 3,000 marine mammals per year in the region, she said.

"If the Russian government would apply their existing fine structure to this fishery they would charge about $9 million in penalties, making this fishery unprofitable," said Brandon. She added that WWF's goal is to compile accurate statistics on the current levels of bycatch and present them to Russian regulators.

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