Simple conservation can sometimes yield more information than expected. When a team of French researchers attached logging devices to 170 albatrosses in the Southern Ocean, their aim was to learn more about the birds’ behaviour and to understand the ways in which the curious creatures interact with shipping vessels. They didn’t plan to set up a policing system.
The logging devices worn by the birds featured GPS and a miniature radar detector, which picks up a boat’s location whenever an albatross gets within around three miles of it. The team found that they were able to cross-check the location information that came back with ‘automatic identification system’ (AIS) data – a voluntary system whereby boats in international waters can declare their location. Of the 353 fishing vessels detected over a six-month period, 28 per cent had their AIS switched off – an indication that a ship might be practising illegal trawling or fishing.
The researchers believe that this method can now be used to patrol the ocean and keep an eye out for boats not self-identifying. It is also being trialled in New Zealand and Hawaii as a conservation aid for other marine species such as sharks and sea turtles. ‘I think it can be used in several ways,’ says Henri Weimerskirch, a marine ornithologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research. ‘One way is for our conservation research, but it also provides information on the location of illegal fisheries – something that is not available otherwise – and it provides information on the location and the number of vessels not using the AIS when they are operating in international waters.’
Recruiting the birds in this way allows monitoring of areas otherwise unaccessible due to the sheer vastness of the ocean. Over the course of six months, the albatrosses surveyed over 20 million square miles. ‘Some people ask me why we aren’t using drones,’ says Weimerskirch. ‘But we are working in very isolated areas, there is no air strip, there is nothing in the area within thousands of kilometres. You cannot do it with a drone. Whereas the birds are very attracted to fishing vessels and can detect them up to 30 kilometres away. They are very efficient at finding vessels in the ocean.’