Research Article: Spatial and temporal variations in seabird bycatch: Incidental bycatch in the Norwegian coastal gillnet-fishery

Date Published: March 13, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Kim Magnus Bærum, Tycho Anker-Nilssen, Signe Christensen-Dalsgaard, Kirstin Fangel, Tom Williams, Jon Helge Vølstad, Heather M. Patterson.


The general decline of seabird populations worldwide raises large concerns. Although multiple factors are interacting to cause the observed trends, increased mortality from incidental bycatch in fisheries has proven to be important for many species. However, the bulk of published knowledge is derived from longline fisheries, whereas bycatch in gillnet fisheries is less studied and even overlooked in some areas. We present seabird bycatch data from a 10-year time-series of fishery data from the large fleet of small-vessels fishing with gillnets along the Norwegian coast—a large area and fishery with no prior estimates of seabird bycatch. In general, we document high rates of incidental bycatch (averaging 0.0023 seabirds/net, or approximately 0.08 seabirds/fishing trip). This results in an estimated annual bycatch between 1580 and 11500 (95% CI) birds in this fishery. There was a surprisingly high percentage (43%) of surface-feeding seabirds in the bycatch, with northern fulmar being the most common species. Among the diving seabirds caught, common guillemot was most numerous. Our findings suggest that coastal gillnet fisheries represent a more general threat to a wider range of seabird populations, as opposed to longline fisheries where surface-feeding seabird species seem to dominate the bycatch. The bycatch estimates for the Norwegian gillnet-fishery varied in time, between areas, and with fishing depth and distance from the coast, but we found no clear trends in relation to the type of gillnets used. The results enabled us to identify important spatio-temporal trends in the seabird bycatch, which can allow for the development and implementation of more specific mitigation measures. While specific time closures might be an efficient option to reduce bycatch for diving seabirds, measures such as gear modification and reduction in release of wastewater during fishing operation are probably a more effective mitigation approach for reducing bycatch of surface-feeding seabirds.

Partial Text

Incidental bycatch in gillnet fisheries has caused some of the highest recorded mortalities of seabirds worldwide, and a recent review estimated that each year a minimum of 400,000 birds die as a direct consequence of this type of fishery [1]. Increased mortality rates can potentially have serious effects on the population dynamics of seabird species as their life history strategies usually encompass long life spans and low annual reproductive output (e.g., [2]). This is especially concerning as the majority of seabird populations around the globe are in decline [3], with the conservation status of many seabird species listed as highly threatened [4]. However, the actual effect of the mortality from bycatch on seabird populations is usually unknown, although circumstantial evidence of a large general effect exists [5]. The apparent lack of population-level effects of gillnet bycatch reported in the literature may be a consequence of multiple factors, but it seems that the gillnet fishery has largely been overlooked as a threat to seabird populations [6]. Consequently, there is a large degree of uncertainty with respect to how seabirds are killed as incidental bycatch in many such fisheries [6, 7], and the current knowledge is based on short-term studies that are highly fragmented in space and time.

In this study, we utilized data from the Norwegian Reference Fleet, a group of Norwegian fishing vessels contracted by the Institute of Marine Research (IMR) to provide detailed information about their fishing activity and catches, including bycatch of marine mammals and seabirds, through trained self-sampling on a regular basis (read more on Each of these vessels reports complete, detailed information on the composition of catches from fishing operations sampled systematically through time. From each sampled fishing operation, the catch of all fish is recorded in numbers and weight by species. Bycatch of seabirds and marine mammals are reported in numbers by species. In this sampling program, vessels are stratified according to gear and ICES statistical area (see description at As the reference fleet comprises a variety of vessels, and we wanted to explore trends representative for the coastal small-boat fisheries, we only used gillnet data from the coastal part of the fleet. For the years used in the study (2006–2015), the coastal part of the fleet was limited to include 9–15 m long vessels fishing along the coast of Norway, with one additional 21m long vessel included in the fleet from 2009–2012. There were no specific permits or permissions required for the sampling.

At the fishing-trip level, bycatch of seabirds in our study system was relatively rare with only 2% of the trips reported to have any such bycatch, and approximately 85% of the bycatch events involved less than five seabirds caught per trip. The remaining 15% of the events involved up to 29 seabirds per trip, and up to 83 seabirds per trip when including the three extreme events. In total, there was a somewhat surprisingly even distribution of diving (57%) and surface-feeding seabirds (43%) in the net catches, with northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis, hereafter fulmar) and common guillemot dominating the catches (Table 2).

In this study, we present estimates and distinct spatio-temporal patterns of seabird bycatch in the extensive small-vessel gillnet fishery along the entire Norwegian coast. Our findings represent new and important contributions to the seabird bycatch literature, especially because statistically-valid knowledge of the extent of bycatch for this large-scale type of fishery has been very limited. Even when excluding extreme events, the associated total estimate of bycatch in the 10-year study period amounted to approximately 52,000 seabirds (SE = 15,000), although with large variation among years. Approximately 60% of this bycatch consisted of equal numbers of common guillemots and fulmars, which amounts to an approximate estimate of 1300 birds of each of the two species being killed annually as bycatch. The high percentage of surface-feeding seabirds taken was perhaps the most surprising result from our findings and contradicts the general perception of surface-feeding birds not being as susceptible to bycatch in bottom-set gillnets as diving species [1] (but see [28]). These findings are thus intriguing and concerning from an international perspective. Many surface-feeding procellariform species have been identified as threatened by incidental bycatch in longline fisheries [7]. Considering the world-wide use of gillnets, our results make it reasonable to question if surface-feeding seabirds are under-represented in the international literature on bycatch in gillnet fisheries.




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