Innovative thinking to keep birds at bay

Whether they use colour, water, movement or noise, fishers are working to develop new options to keep seabirds at a safe distance from their vessels

A gentle shower keeps birds away from the trawl net warp wires.
Photo: Catherine Norwood

By Catherine Norwood

There’s a gentle shower falling on the water astern the Lakes Entrance-based trawler Lady Miriam, but it is not falling from the skies; it is being generated by the trawler’s own rain-maker as part of an industry-initiated research trial.

To the vessel’s Victorian owner Tony Guarnaccia, the device is a bird sprayer, rather than a rain-maker. Its purpose is to prevent seabirds from becoming entangled in the wires that attach the trawl gear to the back of the boat.

The invention is one of two designed by fishers that are being trialled as alternatives to ‘pinkies’ – the large, round, bright-pink buoys. Pinkies are, so far, the only authorised bird-deterrent device for vessels in the southern Commonwealth trawl fisheries. All trawlers in these fisheries are required to use pinkies to reduce bird entanglements as part of their licence conditions.

Safety focus

A gentle shower keeps birds away from the trawl net warp wires.
Photo: Catherine Norwood
Fishers at Eden, NSW, have developed the ‘baffler’ with rubber strips overhanging the warp wires to deter seabirds.

Although the pinkies have been successful in keeping birds away, local fishers have been working on alternatives because, depending on the configuration of the trawler, pinkies can pose some operational hazards for the crew.

The buoys hang off the trawl gear warp wires, but sometimes need to be untangled or adjusted during fishing operations. For Tony Guarnaccia, this is a real problem. “In winds of 40 knots, seven-metre seas and at night it is so dangerous for the crew. The last thing I want is to lose a crew member,” he says.

So he and fellow trawler owner Sot Sotirakis have come up with the ‘bird sprayer’. It looks something like an old-fashioned television aerial hanging off the back of the trawler. Stored vertically when not in use, it is lowered into place once fishing begins.

When the sprayer is turned on, water is pumped through hoses into the spray arms to create a relatively gentle shower over the ‘danger zone’– the warp wires behind the boat. Whether it is the sound or the sensation of the ‘rain’ the birds do not like, it is enough to keep them away, Tony Guarnaccia says.

The sprayer is an advance on their first idea – using a deck hose directed at the warp wires to deter the birds. “But that wasn’t really a safe idea for the crew,” Tony Guarnaccia says. Now they a have a boom they can “set and forget”, keeping the crew drier and free to continue with fishing operations.

Developing the bird-sprayer design is part of the South East Trawl Fishing Industry Association (SETFIA) project ‘Mitigation of seabird interactions in the trawl sectors of the Southern and Eastern Scalefish and Shark Fishery (SESSF)’, funded through a National Landcare Programme Innovation Grant.

Revised design

Recent revisions to the design include increasing the spray coverage across the warp wires from 1.5 metres up to four metres. The two spray arms are offset to increase coverage, and also swivel 180 degrees, to ensure the spray will cover the wires when wind and currents result in the nets drawing in at an angle to the stern.

So far only one sprayer has been manufactured. It is fixed to the starboard side of Lady Miriam for preliminary trials. The intention is to fit sprayers to both sides of the vessel.

The trawler generally fishes off the Victorian and Tasmanian coasts, targeting flathead in shallower water, and Pink Ling (Genypterus blacodes) and Blue Grenadier (Macruronus novaezelandiae) in deeper water.

Tony Guarnaccia has been fishing in the South East Trawl Fishery for more than 45 years – 30 of those aboard his own vessel. For the past 15 years, he has left the fishing to his crew, but is still closely involved in overseeing operations.

“I’m always happy to jump into projects that are going to improve what we’re doing,” he says. “So far we’ve directly invested about $7000 in the project, along with local engineering company J&S Engineering, plus our time and that of our vessel.

“We’re here for the long haul, and we have to protect our industry by making sure we’re doing the right thing,” he says. “We want a sustainable future as fishers. I don’t begrudge the birds a feed, but we don’t want them getting caught on our lines either.”

To gain approval from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) as an authorised bird deterrent, new devices must be as effective or more effective than pinkies. AFMA’s recently released evaluation of pinkies found that these have reduced seabird interactions by 75 per cent since they were introduced.

SETFIA executive officer Simon Boag says SETFIA will use the same methodology as AFMA’s pinkie evaluation to test the effectiveness of the bird sprayer. “I’m confident we can actually reduce bird interactions by more than 90 per cent,” he says.

A second design being developed by fishers based at Eden, New South Wales, is known as a ‘baffler’. A boom fixed out over the back of a trawler is fitted with heavy, relatively rigid rubber strips that slap against the surface of the water as the vessel moves.

Simon Boag says the most commonly encountered seabird in the South Eastern Trawl Fishery is the Shy Albatross, which is often anything but shy.

New Zealand tour

“We are fortunate we don’t interact with as many different bird species as the New Zealand trawlers do. They have a much larger commercial fleet than we do, and they also have much larger bird populations in the areas where they are fishing.” 

Simon Boag was among a small Australian contingent to tour New Zealand earlier this year as part of research into potential seabird mitigation options, funded by the Australian Government. The contingent also included fishers, a marine scientist and representatives from AFMA and the Great Australian Bight Fishing Industry Association.

The group attended the New Zealand Federation of Commercial Fishermen’s Conference in Invercargill and met with representatives from the Deepwater Group – the industry association for New Zealand’s deep-water fisheries – travelling from port to port meeting with fishers and New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries staff. They also visited fishing vessels, seafood processors, net makers and mitigation device distributors.

Simon Boag says exposure to such diverse operations enabled the tour group to put management of seabird interactions in their own fisheries into perspective. During a final debriefing session, the group put forward mitigation devices they thought might work in the southern Commonwealth fisheries, including their own ideas. The bird sprayer and the baffler were the designs chosen for further trials.

“If we can give fishers a range of options to choose from, it will improve safety and compliance, and will ultimately reduce seabird interactions even more,” Simon Boag says. 

Seabird management plans

All Commonwealth trawl vessels in south-east Australia and the Great Australian Bight operate with regulated seabird management plans to minimise interactions with seabirds. Compliance with these plans is a condition of fishing licences.

Under the seabird plans, all vessels must manage their offal by batching or retaining it (to avoid attracting the seabirds) and use a mitigation device that protects seabirds from bumping into trawl cables.

Currently, the only mitigation device available to all 61 trawl vessels in the fishery is the ‘pinkie’, a buoy that is towed in the danger zone, just in front of where the trawl cables enter the water.

More information

Simon Boag, SETFIA,

Report on the effectiveness of seabird mitigation devices (AFMA)