Saving the Black Petrel
- Slow dawning of a new era in fisheries management

by Kate Waterhouse

    Photo: Dave Boyle WMIL
My 6 year old daughter has her head and shoulders stuck inside the hollow trunk of a huge old puriri tree in Glenfern Sanctuary. It is April 30th, near the end of the breeding season for black petrels. We are checking unfledged chicks and placing movement cameras at burrow entrances to capture the moment when they go. As the wetas scuttle above her she carefully shines a small torch to locate the chick – suddenly she stops moving and sucks in her breath: “Oh, it’s cuuute!”. She is not the only petrel tourist on the Barrier this week. Southern Seabirds Solutions and Biz Bell (Wildlife Management International Ltd) have been taking fishermen from Whitianga and Leigh up to the main black petrel breeding colony on Hirakimata (Mt Hobson). The fishermen have no idea what they’re in for and leave with a changed perspective on the big black seabirds that dive for baits off the back of their boats. Biz Bell has been researching these birds for 17 years and this dialogue with fishers has been a long time coming.

Adult petrel on burrow on Hirakimata (Mt Hobson)
Photo: WMIL

Up against it

Bell says: “It is especially important that people realise that birds we see in the Hauraki Gulf during March and April are birds with chicks. The death of any parent bird means the chick will die because one parent can’t supply a chick enough food alone for it to fledge... Juvenile survival is an important factor in the sustainability of any seabird population, so it is very important that every black petrel chick that hatches here can fledge safely.” Only one in ten black petrel chicks will survive migration to the east Pacific and return to try to breed from 3-4 years old, succeeding on average by age 6. Between 60% and 84% of pairs on Aotea fledge a chick in any given year. Unfortunately, each pair would need to do that at least 25 times to keep the population stable. Bell’s research has consistently shown that the land-based threats are relatively low – and are quantifiable. This year rat and cat predation at the study site has been less than 1%. It is the at-sea risks that are most significant – and much harder to measure.

Petrel egg pipping.  Photo: Biz Bell WMIL

Add to this the unknown effects Bell has observed La Nina seasons have on black petrel breeding. In 2010 and 2011, both La Nina years, fewer birds came back to the colony to breed – and it has been the same in previous La Nina seasons. This year, not a La Nina, return rates were much higher. Fishers too, have noticed how hungry birds are in La Nina years – and that there is less squid about – the black petrel’s main food source. The lower the adult breeding population goes – down to 1059 pairs from Bell’s 2012 estimate – the less able the population is to absorb bad years like this. Birdlife International has recently indicated that the black petrel’s IUCN threat status should be raised from Vulnerable to Endangered.

In the waters off Ecuador and Peru the black petrel is the third most abundant bird observed around fishers after waved albatrosses and magnificent frigate bird. While action to reduce bycatch in that large fishery is also needed, action needs to start at home. Most black petrels are caught here off the North East coast of the North Island, where hundreds of baited hooks on long lines are laid along the seabed for snapper, bluenose and hapuka. Black petrels can dive and follow baits as they sink – drowning if they become hooked. They can also be hooked chasing unused baits as lines are hauled in.

Hooked on longlines like this drowned albatross the black petrel is being fished out of existence. Photo: Dr. Graham Robertson

Sourcing funding from DOC, the Hauraki Gulf Forum, Auckland Council, Guardians of the Sea and other donors, Biz Bell has been attaching GPS and dive-depth loggers to black petrels all summer. The data from these devices will tell the team how deep black petrels dive and therefore how deep hooks need to be to evade a diving bird. It will also add to current understanding of the overlap between fishing effort and black petrel foraging patterns. Bell and her colleagues will report on her dive-depth and foraging research this winter.

Reducing NZ’s seabird bycatch – black petrels still most at-risk

The long awaited National Plan of Action 2013 (NPOA) to reduce the incidental catch of seabirds in New Zealand Fisheries was released by the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) in April. It recognised that black petrel is the most at risk seabird from fishing in NZ. Here are the grim statistics based on the most recent risk assessment data:

• The maximum PBR (Potential Biological Removal – that is, deaths) that black petrels can sustain in a given year is 74 birds
• The estimated APF (Annual Potential Fatalities) i.e. birds the model suggest are likely to be caught based on observed capture rates to date is 1440 to the 95% confidence interval – which is approximately 20 times the PBR
• In 2009/10 observers recorded 27 black petrels caught on a single bottom long line vessel trip.
The black petrel is being fished out of existence – and current population data alone should be sufficient to consider closing parts of FMA1 to fishing during the black petrel breeding season. Research is starting to pin down specific areas of overlap between fishing and foraging birds at different times – especially, says Bell, during chick rearing from February to May. No-one wants to go as far as closing the country’s largest snapper fishery, although the Minister has all the power needed to do so.
• The Fisheries Act 1996, Section 9 a) states that “associated or dependent species (including protected species) should be maintained above a level that ensures their long term viability”.
• Section 15 (2) of the act further provides the minister with the powers to avoid, remedy or mitigate the effects of fishing on a protected species, including setting a limit on fishing.

MPI has indicated it will put in place the first species-specific action plan for the black petrel. At the same time the Inshore Annual Operational Planning process, which decides how each fishery should be managed for the coming season, is due to be completed on 1 July. Both must include specific actions to implement point 75 (iii) of the NPOA for Seabirds: “developing targets for the reduction of seabird incidental mortality including appropriate monitoring to ensure they are achieved”.

A Ministry Inshore Fishery official, Steve Halley says the process will be collaborative.  “The plan will include information gathering, risk assessment, risk mitigation, research and implementation.   Methods to reduce risk will include education.  Development of the plan is a priority for MPI”. MPI has also added the Black Petrel Action Group (co-founded by GBICT) to its Inshore Environmental Engagement Forum.

Biz Bell took this shot of a black petrel chick in its burrow on Hirakimata (Mt Hobson).

When will MPI walk the talk

What is needed is specific action and innovation starting in the 2013/14 season that goes beyond plans and meetings. It is the greatest test yet of whether MPI is committed to upholding NZ’s legal obligations to prevent bycatch and protect the black petrel.

Urgency is lacking. MPI and the Department of Conservation have jointly recommended a 30% observer coverage of fishing effort in SNA1 (the main North Island snapper fishery) for 6 months of the coming breeding season – up from a maximum of 1.9% in the past decade (Draft Marine Conservation Services Programme, Annual Plan 2013/4, DOC/MPI). But there is no observer coverage planned for the bluenose and Hapuka bottom long line fisheries, where black petrels are also at high risk.

No proposals either to increase observation coverage using cameras on vessels, despite electronic monitoring being an effective approach used in Australia and trialed in NZ. MPI has indicated they are “waiting for a culture change in the fishing industry before rolling out e-monitoring”. Yet Bell has found fishers to be both keen for observers and electronic monitoring so they can show they are not catching birds – even offering their vessels to MPI for observer coverage.  More likely may be the need for a culture change in MPI, to take the lead on new technologies and, as in Australia, require fishing operators to use them.

Diverting some observer resources into liaison roles to promote effective black petrel mitigation in FMA1 on all vessel types during the breeding season is another innovation dismissed by MPI. “Fisheries Observer duties do not typically include fisher education” says Halley.

Despite the declining population, and the PBR being exceeded in this fishery over a number of years, MPI have also inexplicably ruled out expanding the role of observers to include compliance with bycatch mitigation regulations or guidelines. Instead, MPI is asking us to accept the use of taxpayer funds to increase the accuracy of black petrel bycatch data with no attempt to save birds on these vessels, by ensuring they use mitigation to reduce the chances of catching any in the first place. A lethal experiment indeed.

Halley again: “Gathering new information is not a substitute for management actions, it is a necessary condition to ensure that management actions are as effective as possible… we need to be sure that we are promoting use of methods that are effective in reducing the risk to black petrels.  Robustly identifying best practice mitigation will be part of the process”.

Fisheries management: preventing deaths or collecting better data?

Karen Baird, Forest & Bird’s seabird advocate, says there is already good information on what mitigation influences captures rates of black petrels. “Current regulations are inadequate – they require use of two methods – tori lines, night fishing or line weighting”. She says on their own, tori lines don’t work well for diving birds like black petrels, and night fishing is ineffective, since black petrels feed on squid at night. In FMA1, implementation of line weighting and good offal management (no discharge of fish waste while setting or hauling lines) are changes needed immediately. “At a minimum we should expect these objectives in the Annual Operating Plan for Inshore Fisheries for 2013/4”. Baird is clear that better information will not change the need for urgent management action. “Observers have a role in minimising the adverse effects of fishing by advising on best practice for minimising bycatch”.

Tori lines, along with other measures can
reduce bycatch of petrels by longlines

The Observer project proposed for FMA1 bottom long line snapper fishery has, as its primary objective, not to protect black petrels but to “reduce uncertainty in the estimated capture rates of at-risk species”. Officials clearly believe the risk estimates are overstated and mean to prove it. However, to quote Richards and Abraham’s updated 2013 risk assessment on which the NPOA is based: “The high estimated capture rates of black petrels are not due to a peculiarity of the statistical model”. With or without cryptic mortality, rogue boats or variances in the population of breeding pairs, the answer is the same – far more birds are being killed each year than the population can sustain. They conclude that black petrels are most likely to be in decline. In 17 years Bell has documented a reduction in breeding pairs at the 35ha main colony from more than 6000 in the mid 90s to just over 1000 today.

When, one wonders, do we get to the point in fisheries management where it is more important to save as many of an endangered species as possible than measure how quickly we are killing it through bycatch? The draft MPI/DOC Observer project states that “MPI is confident that current impacts are unsustainable and that management action is needed”. But very little has been done to ensure black petrels can survive alongside the most important snapper fishery in New Zealand. Enforcement is non-existent – in 2012 parliamentary questions put to the then Minister of Primary Industries David Carter on behalf of the Black Petrel Action Group revealed that there has never been a prosecution under the regulations for failure to use Tori lines or properly disposal of offal in FMA1.

The old puriri trees and mature forest of Great Barrier Island should be home to thousands of black petrels every summer. Biz Bell and others continue their heroic research effort, but it is a futile effort if widespread changes to fishing practice do not occur soon.

MPI’s Inshore Fishery management team is at the time of writing, developing its Black Petrel Action Plan. The future viability of this magnificent seabird rests on whether they take the only justifiable step of protective action from November onwards, instead of more accurately recording the nature of the black petrel’s extinction.

What can you do?
• Write to your Member of Parliament, Gulf Island Ward and Great Barrier Island local board – see our website for a sample letter.
• Join the Black Petrel Action Group facebook page
• Sign the petition to change the fisheries regulation when it appears online
• Donate to the GBICT to support future black petrel research and advocacy
• Contact Biz Bell at Wildlife Management International directly to support her research.

• Richard Y, & Abraham ER - Risk of Commercial Fisheries to New Zealand Seabird Populations Report no. 109 presented to the 5th meeting of the ACAP Seabird Bycatch Working Group, May 2013
• National Plan of Action – 2013 to reduce the incidental catch of seabirds in New Zealand Fisheries – Ministry of Primary Industries, April 2013
• Karen Baird & Elizabeth (Biz) Bell - Bycatch of Black Petrel in New Zealand Fisheries presented to the 5th meeting of the ACAP Seabird Bycatch Working Group, May 2013
• Email correspondence: Steve Halley, MPI to Karen Baird et al April 2103
• Karen Baird & Biz Bell (various personal communications, Jan-May 2013)
• Draft Marine Conservation Services Programme, Annual Plan 2013/4 (DOC/MPI)