Albatross fitted with radar detectors to spot illegal fishing

Wandering albatross in flight © Mike Double

Albatross cops may soon be taking to the skies over the subantarctic Isles to scan remote parts of the Pacific Ocean for illegal fishing boats, new research has found.

In a trial using technology shared by New Zealand and France, 169 albatrosses were fitted with radar detection tags in November 2018 and released to the south of the Indian Ocean.

In a separate experiment New Zealand Fisheries fitted 20 radar detection tags on to antipodean albatrossesin January 2019, allowing the department to track their movements between New Zealand’s sub-antarctic islands and the west coast of South America.

Rebecca Blowes, from Fisheries New Zealand, said the government wanted to track the birds to better understand their distribution and foraging range for conservation purposes.

But there was also another motive: the radar detection tags were able to locate fishing boats in remote seas and may be able report back which ones were hunting illegally.

It is estimated the global illegal fishing industry costs upwards of £17.6bn a year.

“The majority of radar detections received were within New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone and as part of our analysis we will check these against reported fishing activity in the same locations,” Blowes said.

“Albatross are taonga [precious] species and this research will help understand more about their movements and how we can protect them.”

The New Zealand birds are part of a larger global effort to fight the illegal fishing trade.

In the northern hemisphere a squad of 169 albatross fitted with the same radar detection tags revealed this week that a third of the vessels plying Antarctic waters below the Indian Ocean were very likely filling their hulls unlawfully with toothfish, ice fish, krill and other species.

Albatross cops: “intelligent drones”

Henri Weimerskirch, a marine biologist at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, said albatross were perfectly adapted for the long-distance and strenuous ocean reconnaissance missions.

They cover great distances and are particularly attracted to fishing boats – especially the fish or fish parts thrown overboard.

To turn the albatross into high-flying spies, a team of international scientists designed a lightweight device with a GPS antenna to track location, another antenna to detect ship radar, a third one to send the data back to headquarters and a solar panel to power them all.

The units were mounted on the backs of the birds, which seemed unfazed by the extra cargo.

Airborne albatross can spot a vessel from 30km away and will consistently come in for a closer look once they do. “They’re like drones, only intelligent,” said Weimerskirch.

When a bird zeros in on a boat its logger detects the radar signal and sends the coordinates back to the scientists.

Of 353 radar contacts made, about 30% were from vessels that had turned off their positioning systems. If they were in national waters, that was a likely sign of illegal activity, the researchers reported.

It is believed the United Kingdom is interested in the trials and would like to use them to reduce seabird bycatch in its waters.

An estimated 300,000 seabirds are killed annually through accidental encounters with fishing vessels but scientists are hoping these risky encounters may soon serve a greater purpose.

The results of the New Zealand trial are expected later this month.

This article was originally published as Intelligent drones: albatross fitted with radar detectors to spot illegal fishing at The Guardian on 31/01/2020.

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