Seabirds of the world, the free ride is over. Late last month, the European Commission banned the practicing of dumping dead fish back into the sea. The so-called “discard ban” will be phased in starting in 2014, and by 2019 fishers on EU boats will no longer be allowed to throw fish back into the sea.
Since some species of seabirds have been following fishing boats for generations, if not centuries, researchers from the UK’s Plymouth University published a review Thursday in the Journal of Applied Ecology which tried to predict the effect of the new ban. They concluded that the adaptable hustlers will probably find another hustle, but they still recommended the creation of marine protected areas to make sure the birds’ populations don’t crash.
The new EU law came about as a result of earlier limits on overworked fisheries. Fishing fleets are given a limit on how much they can collect, so most boats in the past would simply toss unwanted dead or dying fish back into the sea to keep their total weight down. As a result, almost one-fourth of fish caught by EU boats ended up being tossed back into the ocean. That’s clearly unsustainable, with a mind-boggling 1.3 million tons of fish going right back into the water without feeding anyone — except, of course, the opportunistic seabirds.
No dummies, the seabirds figure out the schedule of boats likely to dump lots of fish, and they show up to get their share. For instance, a 2010 study in Spain showed that shearwaters knew which days the boats would be out and made a point of showing up in roughly the right area. The energy they saved by taking the easy meal apparently contributed to their ability to reproduce more successfully.
The Plymouth University researchers suggested that the resourceful seabirds will have a variety of techniques to compensate for the loss of the dumped fish. For instance, bold species like the large gulls and skuas may switch to feeding on other prey — including weaker or smaller birds. They may also steal more prey from the smaller species.
The takeaway? Dr Euan Dunn, the Head of Marine Policy for the RSPB, a British bird advocacy group, said, “Seabirds are a hardy bunch…most will weather the storm of a discard ban.”
Protected areas for marine wildlife would make the transition easier. But the seabirds don’t need dumped fish to keep flying.
[great blue heron with fish photo courtesy Elaine Radford]