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Federal protection of seabirds from US commercial fisheries on the horizon

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The threatened black-footed albatross. Photo Credit: Pacific Rim Conservation

In response to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the US Fish and Wildlife Service said this week it plans to regulate US commercial fisheries’ incidental killing of seabirds.

The federal agency will publish a proposed bird-bycatch rule this summer, according to the agency’s letter to the Center for Biological Diversity.

More than 7,000 seabirds a year are hooked on longlines, entangled in nets or otherwise killed in US commercial fisheries despite the Migratory Bird Treaty Act’s prohibition on take of migratory birds. Conditional permits created by the US Fish and Wildlife Service could set limits on incidental killing, reduce overall take and improve monitoring and reporting in Hawaiʻi, Alaska and other coastal areas.

“The Biden administration is taking an important step toward protecting seabirds from dying in US commercial fishing gear,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney in the Center’s Oceans program. “Declining seabird populations are a global conservation crisis, so it’s a relief that they may finally get the protections required by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Bird bycatch can be minimized and avoided if the Fish and Wildlife Service takes its international conservation commitments seriously.”

Monday’s announcement came in response to a Center petition sent Dec. 6, 2021. The petition followed an announcement reversing the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back the Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibition on killing migratory birds incidental to other activities.

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North America’s wild bird population has declined by 3 billion, or 29%, since 1970. US commercial fisheries cause the deaths of Northern fulmars, black-footed albatross, sooty shearwater, great shearwaters, red-throated loons and other types of seabirds.

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One of the species most frequently caught by US commercial fisheries is the threatened black-footed albatross. These seabirds are long-lived, late-maturing and nest on Pacific islands that will be inundated by sea-level rise. Yet commercial fisheries catch more than 950 black-footed albatrosses a year. The Fish and Wildlife Service’s rulemaking petition could reduce the number of albatrosses killed in fisheries to make the population more resilient to the changing climate.

In 2020, a federal court rejected the Trump Administration’s reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that let industry off the hook for killing birds. The Center has long fought for better protections for seabirds caught in fishing gear. In 2017 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found the US Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by allowing the longline fishery to kill albatrosses and other protected seabirds in the course of fishing operations.

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