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Death of seabirds in Chile: The first step is to understand the problem with greater certainty

Cristián G. Suazo, June 5, 2013

Chile has great potential to be recognized as a "hotspot" for marine biodiversity, including seabirds that can be found in its waters. Thanks to a long and complex geography, Chile has water bodies in the Humboldt Current, ocean environments of Polynesia, as well as the far southern fjords and channels in sub-Antarctic waters.

In this way, an essentially maritime country has never been far from the interaction between humans and seabirds. This relationship is ancestral, starting with examples from the indigenous canoeist peoples who once sailed the southern channels as hunter-gatherers.

Currently, the Chilean coast has a significant fishery presence, both artisanal and industrial. As with any activity of this nature, it also presents some interactions with seabirds at-sea (1) and in breeding colonies.

Chilean researchers (2) have reflected on the role of researchers in Latin America, driving more active participation in the generation of knowledge about biodiversity and conservation, instead of being interested bystanders.

In this light, and considering seabirds in the international arena, Chile has gone from a virtually unknown country position during the 1970s (3), to a country with clear examples of conservation in reducing seabird bycatch. Examples of local adaptations to fishing gear (4) in sub-Antarctic waters and tests of experimental mitigation measures in previously unknown trawl fisheries (5) in the Humboldt Current.

Chile is a country where contemporary discoveries have occurred for population estimates (6) of emblematic species such as the Black-browed albatross Thalassarche melanophrys. However, many challenges still remain to confront the interactions between human activities and associated seabirds.

This story is still in development, as there are many species and fisheries that have yet to be dealt with. One of these new challenges corresponds to the occurrence of dead seabirds washed up on Chilean beaches along the Humboldt Current, which has been blamed on gillnet and purse-seine fisheries. These events which are recurring along the Chilean coast have attracted local local, and international, attention.

Currently, different hypotheses have been mentioned about how these events happen, such as the entanglement of birds in nets, illnesses and even the use of explosives. However, with so many possibilities, we should seek more significant evidence on the causes of these events.

To this end, national researchers and foreign collaborators have suggested combining various methodologies. Some of these have considered the use of necropsies (7) to assign seabird mortality through the signs of drowning in nets such as Magellan penguins Spheniscus magellanicus. This same type of method can be used to evaluate the existence of dynamite fishing and the damage that this would represent in bodily structures.

Chilean researchers (8) have established that the mortality of penguins principally have been linked to entanglement in fishing nets and indicate a chronic level of bycatch. There is a marked seasonality of this during the winter migration of birds toward lower latitudes. Currently, the integration of historical and recent accounts of these type of interactions is in preparation for a publication.

At the same time, to systematically monitor events from shore has generated open access platforms such as the seabird strandings network. This network will compile information pertinent to seabird bycatch, contamination, disease and other aspects throughout Chile.

These initiatives are already underway, beginning with the joint work of researchers and authorities that has manifested the need to renew the National Plan of Action – Seabirds, beyond seabird bycatch in longline fisheries.

Thus, the road toward generating the knowledge of how to reduce and eliminate these events is a mission for Chile. Even so, the next steps must be taken toward obtaining solutions with the general community and active participation with the fisheries industry. This way, we will confront and develop local solutions for what is also a global issue.


(1) Suazo, C.G., R.P. Schlatter, A.M. Arriagada, L.A. Cabezas & J. Ojeda (2013) Fishermen's perceptions of interactions between seabirds and artisanal fisheries in the Chonos archipelago, Chilean Patagonia. Oryx, 42: 184-189.

(2) Rau, J.R. (2010) En el 2010, año internacional de la diversidad biológica: un ruego para que los científicos latinoamericanos pasemos de ser espectadores a ser actores. Boletín de Biodiversidad de Chile, 2: 1-2.

(3) Tickell, W.L.N. (1976) The distribution of Black-browed and Grey-headed albatrosses. Emu, 76: 64-68.

(4) Moreno, C.A., R. Castro, L.J. Mújica & P. Reyes (2008) Significant conservation benefits obtained from the use of a new fishing gear in the Chilean Industrial Patagonian Toothfish Fishery. CCAMLR Science, 15: 79-91.

(5) ATF-Chile (2013) Demersal Trawl Report (2011-2012). Albatross Task Force-Chile, BirdLife International, Chile.

(6) Moreno, C.A. & G. Robertson (2008) ¿Cuántos Albatross de Ceja Negra, Thalassarche melanophrys (Temminck, 1828) anidan en Chile? Anales Instituto Patagonia (Chile), 36: 89-91.

(7) Schlatter, R.P., E. Paredes, J. Ulloa, J. Harris, A. Romero, J. Vásquez, A. Lizama, C. Hernández & A. Simeone (2009) Mortandad de pingüino de Magallanes (Spheniscus magellanicus) en Queule, región de la Araucanía, Chile. Boletín Chileno de Ornitología, 15: 78-86.

(8) Simeone, A. (2010) Patrones espaciales y temporales de mortalidad de pingüinos Spheniscus en redes de pesca a lo largo de la costa chilena (Resúmenes X Congreso Chileno de Ornitología). Boletín Chileno de Ornitología, 17: 53.

Comments ( 2 )

Grant RW Humphries

Grant RW Humphries

This is a great post, thanks very much Cristian.

Are there any fisheries observer programs that exist in Chile? I.e. people on board ships who observe bycatch and record those data?

And from a national standpoint, do you think there is much movement from the public to invest in conservation research?

Cristián G.  Suazo

Cristián G. Suazo

Hi Grant,

Chile has a program of observers at sea by IFOP (fisheries development institute). This institution has an observer program in several national fisheries but first was focused mainly on fisheries caught.

Currently, they are including information from the interaction with seabirds, which is being strengthened through training workshops on methodologies for data collection, species identification and implementation of mitigation measures.

This will be an important point during the updating of the Chilean national action plan to reduce bycatch.

Simultaneously, Albatross Task Force - Chile is monitoring systematically different fisheries and working with IFOP and other public and private stakeholders.

As a result of this work in Chile, ATF fisheries has reached previously unknown information in relation to seabirds through a wide spatial and temporal coverage, as in the industrial trawl.

All this information is shared with the authorities, researchers and industry. Thus, we have demonstrated the utility of using mitigation measures to reduce bycatch to zero.

This information and the technical support from ATF will also be transmitted IFOP's observers in relationship to obtain adequate information on the identification of species, interactions and mitigation.

Regarding your last question, I can say that there is a growing interest from new researchers to work on conservation (e.g. initiatives from universities, research centers and NGOs).

As a small example, we ourselves also achieved international funding, which despite being considered "modest" amounts, we have materialized our results with articles available to share with the community at large.