Friday, 9 March 2012

Our Far South – values, sustainability, and stewardship

The Our Far South crew in Antarctica. Picture by
 Mike Wilkinson.
As I write this we are heading into Lyttelton, where the ‘Our Far South’ voyage will reach its final destination.  From there, the 50 members of the ‘Our Far South’ crew will go their separate ways and once again resume their multitude of different activities and interests. This marvelous group of people has looked at issues around the lands and seas south of New Zealand, including the Ross Dependency.  The Crew and I have seen things that were previously just words on a page or a picture in a book.  Our country’s involvement in the history, management, and future of the area has been scrutinised and debated.  There is no doubt in my mind that all aboard have been changed in some way by the experience – I certainly have. The opportunity to  see some of this vast area, with my own eyes and through the eyes of others; combined with access to the extensive collective knowledge of ‘captive’ and willing  experts; mixed with a shared desire to learn and ultimately to educate; and make a difference was a heady brew.

What did I learn? I saw some of the success stories - the clearance of pest mammals from Campbell Island, its turnaround from a bleak sheep-grazed, rat infested southern outpost was one thing that resonated strongly with me.  I also learned that there are still many more challenges to face, such as feral animal control on Stewart Island and other sub-Antarctic Islands, that funding for these important areas was low and very restricted, and that when balancing funding priorities for effective management of our off-shore sub-Antarctic Islands, pest control was the only clear priority – a no-brainer. 

The Ross Sea - a part of 'Our Far South'
From my fisheries perspective it reinforced my belief that as fishers with access to the resources of the area we have a clear responsibility to do our part in protecting both the environment, the ecosystem–particularly the unique and irreplaceable birds, animals, and other creatures that make this region home.  The group discussed the Ross Sea toothfish fishery and generally concluded that it was well managed at a precautionary level at the moment and stacked up as well, if not better, than many domestic New Zealand fisheries.  We looked the potential implementation of Marine Protected Areas
(MPAs) in the Ross Sea Region and favored New Zealand’s research based approach, based on a huge amount of work and extensive consultation over more recent calls for closures of almost the entire area. In my opinion such ill-considered and extravagant proposals would never reach consensus at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living resources – the responsible Management body - and will probably harden the attitude of Members that might have initially agreed to the New Zealand proposal based on the science grounded Systematic Environmental Planning approach.

From another viewpoint we learned how much the New Zealand science community contributes to international studies on Antarctic fisheries, climate change, geology, and many other polar based disciplines – a huge output and for our size in a world scale, a disproportionate amount of great science.

I learned much more of the real and looming threats that climate change poses to both the sub-Antarctic and the Antarctic regions and of the recent work that has been carried out in Antarctica.

For me the ultimate message was stewardship.  If we call it ours we must look after it.  We assert ownership over and manage our 200 mile economic zone, and we still maintain our claim to the Ross Dependency.  With this ownership comes the responsibility to protect, manage, and where necessary rebuild the ecosystems of this southern region - ‘Our Far South’.
Sustainability in our fisheries, protection of our environment, and appreciation for what we still have and what we have already lost were the key things that I will take home with me and remember.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Fishing and the Environment

Royal albatross on Campbell Island.

We left Campbell Island on Sunday evening after a two day exploration of the island.  Until the late 20th century there were still sheep, cattle, and rats on the main island – chiefly a legacy of a failed farming venture that lasted from 1895 to 1931 - a comprehensive control programme has seen the island again predator free.  For me the highlight of the visit was seeing the numbers of nesting southern royal albatross and their recently hatched chicks.  For that alone, as well as  the two marvelous days we stayed and explored, I can find no adjectives that can do justice in expressing my enchantment at the magnificent birds, animals, and scenery we saw there.  It truly sheeted home the importance of procedures in our fishing operations that minimise seabird captures and interactions as discussed in previous blogs. As I write we are on our way to the Antipodes Islands and should arrive tomorrow. 

The visit to a predator free area such as Campbell Island highlights an important issue – that is the risk of reintroduction of pest species.  This is why our vessels have regular checks for vermin such as rats and are not allowed near such islands without certification to prove that this has been done.  The boats carry out their own inspections regularly between checks.

Working within the New Zealand 200 mile Economic Zone (NZ-EEZ) there are also comprehensive regulations governing the disposal of rubbish and sewage; oil and bilge-water; and ballast water and hull inspections for unwanted introduced organisms.  Vessels like San Aotea II that  work further south in Antarctic must comply with even stricter protocols.

So how does running a fishing vessel in Antarctic waters differ from anywhere else?  Much of the debate about fishing and other human activities that are carried out in Antarctic waters pivots about words like 'pristine', 'unspoiled', and 'virgin'.  These words summarise important values to many people concerned about Antarctica and the Antarctic environment and appear frequently in debate about these issues.  

Although not strictly accurate (there is a long history of whaling, sealing and human settlement in many parts of Antarctica including the Ross Dependency) the sentiments expressed are important, and need to be recognized in setting the standards for operation within the geographical area managed by CCAMLR (the Convention Area). 

There are specific challenges to vessel operations presented by the extreme climate, low temperatures, remoteness, and unique and precious wildlife.

Those who fish in the area under CCAMLR approval work under a very strict series of Conservation Measures.  These measures govern items as varied as the reporting of incidental catches of invertebrates in order to map vulnerable marine ecosystems, garbage and sewage management, the ban on strapping bands for bait boxes, disposal of fish waste (not allowed south of 60°south latitude) and galley scraps, the discharge of oil or oily water in the Convention area, and the reporting of lost fishing gear.

Seeing the amazing wild life on Campbell Island sheeted
home the importance of good fishing procedures.
New Zealand vessels must also have a permit under the New Zealand Antarctic Marine Living Resources Act (AMLR 1981). This approval is only given after an extensive process of application and evaluation during which, among other things, the suitability of the vessel for the area, crew experience, past performance, and contributions to research and knowledge of the area is assessed.  For example,  New Zealand requires its vessels to be of an appropriate ice classification to work in the Ross Sea, have well trained and experienced crews and have a good history of compliance with all New Zealand and CCAMLR measures.  In a previous blog I detailed the characteristics of vessels that New Zealand considers appropriate for Antarctic conditions.

Unfortunately under the current CCAMLR regime there are no clear minimum standards for the suitability of vessels for the polar environment, crew experience, required safety equipment and required spare equipment.  Recent casualties in the region strongly suggest that a change is needed in this regard. In my opinion the approval of unsuitable vessels by some CCAMLR Members compromises human safety, the Antarctic environment and gives an unfair perception of the activities of more responsible fishing states.
Hopefully this situation can be improved to the positive benefit of the environment, the crews, and the ultimately those who manage the area.

Next blog – Our Far South – values, sustainability, and stewardship.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Antarctic toothfish

As winter sets in ice made landing here at
Cape Adare impossible for the Our Far South team.

Well the Our Far South crew are on their way north now.  Unfortunately the ice around Cape Hallett and Cape Adare had moved in and made any landing impossible – the first signs of the winter freeze are appearing down here – pancake ice and the coming of night.  We did get a good close look at the Possession Islands where a number of our intrepid explorers took a sub-zero dip.  We leave with mixed feelings; regret for leaving such a magical place and the anticipation of the welcome call of home we are now heading for Campbell Island which we will reach in a few days time. As we travel north the team is busy with seminars and wide discussions about fishing, climate change and its effects on the Antarctic, and tourism.

It’s about time I talked about the lead actor in the fishing scene down here – the Antarctic toothfish.  A definite case of beauty being in the eyes of the beholder, the one adjective that first comes to mind is ‘big’.  Imagine a blue cod the length of a 12 year old human and of a similar weight, colour it grey, paint a few black bands on its fins, give it several rows of stubby teeth and a wide gaping mouth and you’ll start to get the idea.  The ‘Toothfish’ moniker applies more its close cousin the Patagonian toothfish which has a serious row of wolf-like teeth at the front of its jaw – not so it’s more southern relative. 

Antarctic toothfish can grow to a very large size.  The largest I have seen was over 2 metres in length and weighed 155 kg.  At this size we generally find that their reproductive organs have atrophied - they are long past the age of spawning.  Generally though, they live to about 35 years and by age 13 at least half the males are spawning.  Females seem to mature a bit later so that by 16 years at least half of them are reproductively active.

We know that spawning takes place during the winter, when the Ross Sea Region is covered by ice, on the shallow hills and ridges of the Pacific Antarctic Ridge to the north of the area.  Some of the research I have been working on indicates that before they spawn they feed up and gain condition in the more southern 'slope' region (a steep area of seafloor where the shallower 'shelf' descends into the deep sea).  During this time we think that they 'bulk up' and store energy as lipid fat - like fuel if you like - to sustain them over their spawning period in the north, where food is more scarce and toothfish are crowded on restricted grounds.  As most spawning has finished by the start of the season it is uncommon to find fully developed females.  The few that I have seen have carried huge egg masses, one fish I examined of about 60 kg in weight contained 26 kilograms of eggs, a huge investment in reproduction. The eggs are large - about 3mm in diameter or the size of tapioca, but still very numerous. What happens next is still not fully understood.  The most likely hypothesis, and one we are now piecing together with direct observations, is that the eggs and larval fish drift with the easterly flowing currents associated with the Antarctic Convergence and possibly reach as far as the Drake Passage between Antarctica and South America;  in fact, some may continue further eastwards into the Scotia Sea. Generally however, as the small toothfish develop they move south close to the coast and ice shelves where there is a westerly flowing counter-current, the Antarctic Coastal Current.  Over a number of years as they grow larger they continue a gradual movement back westward.  We can see this trend when we measure the lengths (sizes) of these 'juvenile' fish from different areas of the shelf along the Pacific sector of the continent.  In fact this measurement is a major aim of the pre-recruit survey that I have already covered in another blog. Eventually this westward movement tends northward as they reach Ross Island and the western side of the Ross Sea proper into deeper trench around Terra Nova Bay - from where they move north again onto the 'slope', thus completing the cycle.

What do they eat? Literally anything… As part of our research during the years I have worked down here we have examined the stomach contents of many thousand Antarctic toothfish.  They are non-selective and voracious feeders – we have found many species of Antarctic fish in their stomachs - some of which have been fresh enough to supply as museum specimens to Te Papa.  They also eat, squid, prawns, skates, the remains of penguins killed by leopard seals, we find rocks,  in fact just about anything that they encounter and find remotely interesting and that will fit between their stubby toothed jaws ends up inside.

Interestingly there are records from krill trawlers and whalers from the past era of commercial activity that indicates that these large fish do not restrict their activities to the bottom but move up and down in the water column.  The lack of a swim bladder which suits rapid vertical movements and  the fact that they see using natural light rather than having a yellow filter on the eye (as is the case for many species adapted for the deeper sea) supports this.  The fishery catches them on the bottom in water depths from about 800 to 1700 metres deep.

The New Zealand fleet working in the Ross Sea region have gained Marine Stewardship Certification. This is a reflection of the effectiveness of the CCAMLR management system, an independent evaluation of the sustainability of the stock, and a clear tick to the vessels’ responsible operations.  The effect of this is that another body additional to CCAMLR is monitoring our advances in knowledge and management of this precious resource.

Which leads on to the next blog – Fishing and the Antarctic Environment.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Seabirds and fishing – solutions

I am now well and truly settled in with the Our Far South team who have really made me royally welcomed.  As I write my ribs are still sore from laughter incurred as a result of the ‘Hawaiian evening’ last night. Amazingly they all work as hard as they play and a lot is going on every day and in many different disciplines.

In my last blog I wrote about the threats to seabirds from a number of factors; one of which is fishing.  Here I’ll try and tell you what we have found to be successful in reducing fishing related captures.

This is what it is all about.
Trawling and long-lining are two common methods of commercial fishing that cause problems around New Zealand. There is increasing evidence that methods used by recreational fishers like inshore line fishing and shallow water set netting also cause seabird deaths.  To some extent what we do it is dependent on the type of fishing method but generally the underlying principles are the same.

So how can we stop seabirds being killed as a result of fishing?  The universal principles of hazard management can be applied to this problem as well – isolate, minimise, or eliminate.  Removing the threat is obvious – an example of this the fishmeal plant on San Aotea II meaning that nothing edible goes back over the side.  When using the longlining example (although the principles are relevant to other fishing methods,) isolation and mitigation translate into methods that either scare birds away from the danger zones near vessels that are actively fishing, or moving the attractant food away from these areas, either by changing their location or by the retiming of some operations. The most effective solutions tend to be simultaneous combinations of a number of these different techniques.

The correct positioning of the Streamer line over the
hooks as they are set is most important.
Our main marine version of a scarecrow is the streamer line (also called the tori or bird line).  This is generally a rope of relatively thin diameter (think clothesline,) with a bit of heavy mooring rope or similar at the end to create drag which is towed behind a boat.  The main line is generally quite long – say 200 metres.  Hanging off this, like washing, are a number of paired streamers made of coloured plastic tubing spaced out close enough to be effective and cut so that they reach from the line to the water – the streamer line obviously angles  down to the sea surface from the stern of the boat. When deployed the streamers move about in the wind and scare the birds. The best systems allow this streamer line to be pulled one way or the other across the stern of the vessel in order to sit directly over the line as it is being set as wind and tide can affect this location. ‘Jigglers’ that shake the line physically and the use of an extension pole to one side of the vessel which also creates a ‘wall’ near the area where the baits first enter the water are enhancements. In ice-free waters an arrangement similar to this is used about the hauling area (a curtain) to keep birds away from baited hooks as the line is hauled back up. We also have noise-making devices such as the gas powered cannons used in orchards and vineyards.

The most effective way of reducing seabird mortality, by minimising the danger, is making sure the baited hooks sink quickly out of the diving range of birds.  Weighted lines are the best method – our New Zealand fishing industry has worked closely with suppliers to develop a longline backbone (the rope that the hooks are attached to) with lead weights embedded in it to make it sink quickly. This is now widely used and is a safer and more effective solution than our previous technique of tying larger weights onto the line at intervals.

Timing the release of fish waste and bait is also very important in minimising seabird captures. Although this is not an option south of 60° S due to the CCAMLR regulations on offal discharge, in other fisheries this is a very successful technique. Best carried out from the side of the vessel away from the hauling area and most effectively when no hooks are coming up it means that birds will get their feed in safety.  Some object to this approach on the basis that it will teach birds that vessels fishing are food sources – to my mind we are well past that stage and are better off managing the, by now, well learned behaviour.  Setting lines only at night when visibility is poor is another option, although down here in the Ross Sea in summer this is obviously not an option as it is always light.

To my mind one of the most important factors is the commitment of the skipper and senior crew on each boat to reducing seabird mortality - other crew take their lead from those they respect.

I have seen us make huge progress  in the elimination of seabird catch over the last decade but this does not mean we have solved the problem or can afford to be complacent.  All of us who fish, whether as a business or for pleasure, have a duty to fulfil. It’s a problem we can fix.

Next blog – the Antarctic toothfish.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Seabirds and fishing – challenges

Trevor Hughes (left), long time leader of the Antarctic Policy Unit
 welcomes me ashore at Franklin Island.

Yesterday our San Aotea II finally met up with the Spirit of Enderby and the Our Far South team at Franklin Island. I have now finally joined them (swapped by San Aotea II for half-a-dozen tins of instant coffee and 5 kilos of sugar; a pretty fair trade they thought).  San Aotea II then headed for home, having been away since November 28th of   last year.  For me, I had the added bonus of finally stepping foot on Antarctica as the team went ashore at Franklin Island – in all the years I have worked here that had never been possible as special permits are required and environmental protection is paramount to protect the birds, seals, and other living things.  Which leads us into the subject of my next two blogs – seabirds and fishing.

South Polar skuas playing on our vessel.
A couple of weeks ago, fishing north of the Ross barrier we had an escort of South Polar skuas circling about the boat.  Over several hours I watched one of these birds make numerous attempts to land on the foredeck.  After finally realising the futility of trying to land on the rail (made of pipe) with webbed feet the bird managed to set down on the deck – not gracefully but successfully.  Having succeeded in this it looked pretty happy, warming its underside on the heated deck and settling in.  This first arrival was followed by a second bird – possibly its mate going through the same procedure until also finally alighting alongside the first.  There was a line with a round ‘monkey’s fist’ (knot) on the end attached to one of the mooring ropes, and this pair of skuas spent a lot of time and energy trying to make off with it. They were tugging and hauling vigorously together, one way or the other for hours, but failing as it was obviously firmly attached.  They might have felt that they had found the ultimate penguin egg.  We had a lot of pleasure watching their antics.  They eventually departed bereft of the prize. Unfortunately not all interactions between seabirds and fishing vessels end as well.

A few facts to start – according to my reading there are about 8600 species of birds of which only 359 species are seabirds.  Of these 359 species, 84 (or nearly a quarter) breed about New Zealand and our off-shore Islands.  Of those 84, 35 species are endemic to the New Zealand region alone.

Although some of these New Zealand seabirds stay within New Zealand waters many travel much more widely – as far as the North Pacific and South Atlantic, returning to New Zealand waters to breed.

Adelie penguin in the surf at Franklin Island.
Without doubt seabird numbers worldwide are under threat. The reasons for this are many: introduced and natural predators, loss of habitat, plastic debris - either harming them through ingestion or entanglement, oil spills or pollution, climate change, and, of importance to us - fishing.  The fishing industry has little or no control over many of these threats but it can make a big difference by reducing or removing the effects of fishing on these seabird populations. This is a problem we must own and solve.

What is the problem?  Simply the fact that birds are attracted to boats as a ready source of food. Bait, fish waste, discarded fish, and lost fish are an easy meal – fast food on the waves.

With ongoing research documenting the threats and continuing demise of seabird populations, answers and solutions are required of the fishing industry world-wide.  New Zealand has been at the forefront of this response. A major player in New Zealand is Southern Seabird Solutions, bringing together government, fishing industry, science, and environmental groups with the common aim of promoting fishing practices that avoid the incidental capture and mortality of seabirds.   I will detail specific methods used aboard our longline vessels in a later blog but in general such methods either scare birds away from dangerous areas around a vessel, remove the attractant food, minimise the time baits are available to birds, or time fishing activities when seabird numbers are low, absent or when their vision is reduced, such as at night.

SouthernSeabird Solutions is a charitable trust and brings together industry, government, and environmental groups to share expertise in addressing this issue and sharing solutions. New Zealand Skipper, John Bennett, the then skipper of San Aotea II was the first recipient of the Golden Albatross Award at the International Fishers Forum held in Hawaii in 2002 for his commitment to eliminate capture of seabirds and his innovation in this regard.

When New Zealand vessels started working in the Ross Sea this knowledge and our methods were transferred into the fishery with many of the innovations and measures used by our vessels now widely incorporated into CCAMLR Conservation measures for not only the Ross Sea region but other exploratory fisheries.  In the fourteen years that New Zealand vessels have fished in the Ross Sea no seabirds have been killed as a result of fishing operations, a record we are proud of.

Next blog Seabirds and fishing – solutions.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012


It’s a very cold and windy day down here this morning; the temperature is hovering about -9°C or so and it’s a full gale blowing.  Having said that we have been really lucky with the weather for our CCAMLR survey so far and things are proceeding well with over two-thirds of the sampling lines completed.

  An observer monitoring line setting. Two observers must
       be carried aboard all boats working in CCAMLR exploratory
 fisheries as one of the management measures.
It’s pretty hard to boil down a complex organisation such as CCAMLR and its management systems into a few sentences but I’ll try my best.

So what is CCAMLR and what does it have to do with Antarctic Fishing?  The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (abbreviated as CCAMLR and pronounced ‘kammelar’) came into being in 1980 as part of the Antarctic Treaty System with 15 signatories, New Zealand being a founding member.  There are now 25 Signatories to the Convention and 9 other States that are party to the Convention but not Members of the Commission. This Convention established a Commission to manage the marine living resources for the Antarctic region and applies to all marine living resources except seals and whales.  The Convention applies to the regions south of the Antarctic Convergence, a boundary where colder polar waters meet the more temperate waters to the north and is a very effective biological barrier to most Southern Ocean species.   CCAMLR has met annually since the first meeting in 1982 in October-November at its headquarters in Hobart, Tasmania. There are a number of scientific working groups that advise the Scientific
Committee which in turn advises the Commission.  Most of these groups also meet annually.

Why was the Convention thought necessary?  Well it was because of concerns raised about the potential for a developing krill fishery in the 1970’s to significantly affect the Antarctic ecosystem (which is largely dependent on krill) and a desire to avoid the overexploitation and other problems that had occurred in other fisheries at that time (including several Antarctic fish species that had been overfished).  The main objective of the Convention is the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, where ‘conservation’ is defined to include rational use (where rational use allows the harvesting of marine species while ensuring that the principles of conservation are maintained).  The principles of rational use are detailed out in Article 2 of the Convention.  In short - CCAMLR’s task is to balance the demands of fisheries with the requirement to ensure the Southern Ocean ecosystem is not negatively affected by those fisheries. CCAMLR was the first international convention involving fisheries to include wide-ranging conservation principles in its objectives based on an ecosystem approach.

CCAMLR’s headquarters in Hobart, Australia.
What is the ecosystem approach?  A management system that focuses not only on the target species fished, but also manages dependent and related species in the ecosystem. How does CCAMLR do this?  Very briefly, by the setting of a long-term annual yield for target species drawing on a number of sources and revising this yield frequently as new information or improved methodologies become available.  This yield figure is based on mathematical models which incorporate the requirement to ensure that sufficient of the catch species are also available for predators.  The calculations are deliberately conservative to account for uncertainty in our knowledge.  Other sources of information such as research surveys (like one San Aotea II is currently undertaking) are incorporated as well as any other relevant fishery independent information.  Fish and non-fish by-catch are also rigorously managed – the protection of these will be the subject of a further blog.

For those interested further the CCAMLR website provides a much more comprehensive explanation of these topics.  I hope that the weather is kinder for our Our Far South crew as they cross the Southern ocean from Macquarie Island to the Ross Sea than it is here today.  I am hoping to transfer aboard sometime midweek.  Next blog – Seabirds and fishing – challenges and solutions.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Our fine vessel

Vessels working in the Antarctic environment are confronted with additional challenges when compared with operations around New Zealand and other lower latitude fisheries.  The obvious ones are the ice and cold.  Additionally there is a strict obligation to keep our environmental footprint as low as possible – that is reducing the impact of our operations on the Antarctic environment to the minimum.  There are also fishing issues such as the minimisation of seabird interactions.

The crew on the San Aotea II
So what makes our vessel, San Aotea II, suited for working in these cold southern waters?  Well she was purpose built in Norway for polar waters, originally for a Russian Company but purchased by Sanford specifically for Antarctic fishing. She has successfully operated in the Ross Sea for the past fourteen seasons. We have a heated foredeck, rail, and warm air running up through the foremast.  This controls the build-up of ice on the forepart of the boat in cold and stormy conditions. The bridge windows have trace-heating wires through them to stop ice accumulation there as well.  We also have good accommodation heating, heating in the stability tank and the factory overboard sumps.  There is an extensive array of ice lights up on the forward mast to assist safe navigation in the hours of darkness which can occur late in the season.  She is built to an ice classification for operation in regions where ice floes of 40cm thickness are anticipated – New Zealand requires its vessels operating in Antarctic waters to be of an ice-strengthened class.
We issue good warm protective clothing and carry survival suits for all crew members and observers. In an emergency we have four encapsulated life rafts aboard.  Carried either side of the vessel, each pair can take a total of 45 persons – our full crew complement is 26.  We also have an alloy Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) with a 50 HP outboard. 

San Aotea II
To reduce seabird interactions San Aotea II is one of very few longliners fitted with a plant which converts all fish waste, unusable by-catch, and bait into dried fish meal.  All garbage is sorted and retained for disposal ashore or burnt depending on type, with the ash being retained for shore based disposal.  All food waste must be finely macerated before discharge.  Eggs and chicken bones, a special case, must be kept aboard due to the risk of infecting wildlife with Salmonella. The factory sumps are fitted with fine screens to prevent any processing waste going over the side.

There are other considerations - remoteness means additional challenges when confronted with potential medical and dental issues and the lack of access to emergency services is always kept in mind. Crew and vessel safety is paramount.

And finally to make it all work we have well-trained and experienced officers and crew, many of whom have spent many seasons working in the Ross Sea – but more on the crew in a coming blog.