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New fishing gear sharply reduces seabird mortality

Ed Melvin

A double-weight branch line for use in the long line fishing industry won a $30,000 prize from WWF for reducing bycatch of seabirds by nearly 90 percent.

A breakthrough design in long line fishing gear has resulted in a nearly 90 percent drop in the number of seabirds accidentally killed.

The design by Japanese tuna boat captain Kazuhiro Yamazaki is a double-weight branch line that sinks the hooks deeper into the ocean, out of reach of seabirds such as albatrosses and petrels.

The new system also reduces injuries to boat crews as they rapidly coil in the lines. 

For his design, Yamazaki won the World Wildlife Fund's Smart Gear contest, which has a $30,000 prize, and $7,500 from the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation.

Seabird mortality from the miles-long lines of baited hooks, strung out behind boats meant to lure in tuna and other high value fish, has long bedeviled the fishing industry.

The baited hooks — which appear like a free meal — are particularly attractive to birds such as albatrosses that go on extended flights in search of food. 

Environmental groups have pushed for improvements to the gear in order to protect wildlife, including endangered species such as sea turtles. The Smart Gear contest is WWF's nod to innovation in the industry.

In 2010, more than 95,000 of the branch lines with the double weight system were hauled. There were no injuries to workers and a 89 percent reduction in seabird mortality with no effect on catch rates, according to environmental group.

"The conservation potential of Yamazaki double-weight branchline is substantial," reads a WWF prize notification. "It is an innovation that meshes practicality and safety with function and conservation."

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