No Longer Winging It: Using Global Fishing Watch to Identify Where Albatrosses and Fishing Vessels Meet at Sea

Zoologist and marine ecologist Henri Weimerskirch (left) from the French National Center for Scientific Research has spent many years tracking seabirds through their annual migrations. Now he’s using Global Fishing Watch to track the individual fishing vessels and fleets the birds interact with. His goal is to identify risks to the birds and help develop sustainable fishing practices to protect them.

Swarming seabirds, gliding in a clear blue sky above a fishing vessel in the water. The image is picturesque, striking – and often a signal of one of the largest threats to seabird survival. Bycatch, the accidental entrapment of unwanted marine life, accounts for hundreds of thousands of seabird deaths every year. And the albatross, are among those facing the greatest danger, with 21 out of 24 species categorized as near threatened to critically endangered. Discover how Global Fishing Watch is being utilized to help protect the seabirds.

Henri Weimerskirch with a brown-browed Albatross on Kerguelen Island in the south western Indian Ocean. Photo: Henri Weimerskirch

Henri Weimerskirch, a zoologist and marine ecologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, has been working on solving this problem for years. He studies albatross foraging behavior and the effects human activities have on their populations. Global Fishing Watch provided Weimerskirch with a new view on the albatross, as he can now identify specific boats seabirds interact with when they’ve gone past the borders of standard tracking technologies.

By tagging brown-browed albatrosses from the French Subarctic Islands with radar-detecting GPS data-loggers,  Weimerskirch and his colleagues were able to see where the birds were and if they were near boats. The scientists then connected this information with Vessel Monitoring System data shared by the French government, enabling them to identify which vessels crossed paths with tagged birds in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Crozet and Kergulean islands. A staggering 80 percent of seabirds spent a considerable amount of time around the fishing vessels.

Unfortunately, the ability to further track seabird activity ended at the EEZ boundary. According to Weimerskirch, “The albatrosses are foraging 95 percent of their time in international waters.” And that’s why the view Global Fishing Watch provides is so important. Using the map, Weimerskirch and his team were able to determine where the albatrosses interacted with fishing boats outside the EEZs. Even more important to Weimerskirch, he was able to identify the specific boats and the nation in which they were registered.

Moving forward, Weimerskirch plans to use the information he’s gathered to link the extent of overlap between fisheries fleets, the nations they’re flagged to, and individual albatross populations from various locations. “With this we will be able to say, for example, the Crozet population interacts mainly with the Japanese and Taiwanese fishery in the North,” he says. “We cannot have this information any other way.”

Read more about Henri Weimerskirch’s study on our blog.