By John Kerr 21/06/2017

New technology which tracks how much time seabirds spend around fishing vessels could be recruited into the fight against illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean.

The use of GPS trackers to chart the travels of wildlife is not exactly new, but developments in animal tracking now allow researchers to not only see where animals are, but also who else might be in the vicinity.

In a new study just published in the journal Conservation Biology,  researchers attached ‘XGPS’ units with radar sensors to 53 juvenile wandering albatrosses (Diomedea exulans) foraging from the Crozet Islands. These devices tracked the birds’ movements as well as recording areas where they picked up a radar signal from nearby boats.

The tiny units – weighing less than 35 grams – were developed by New Zealand-based Sextant Technologies (the same company who fitted a GPS tracker to the wayward Emperor Penguin ‘Happy Feet’ in 2011).


A field worker monitors a Crozet wandering albatross on Crozet Island (southern Indian Ocean). Credit: Te Papa.


Study co-author Susan Waugh, a Senior Curator at Te Papa, explained the importance of the new research in a media release:

“Being able to detect the presence of vessels throughout a species’ range is essential to derive comprehensive encounter, attendance and mortality rates and detect changes in foraging behaviour triggered by the presence of vessels.”

An estimated 300,000 sea birds are killed annually in longline fishing. The results provide important information for fishers and conservationists aiming to decrease the seabird bycatch – the collateral damage of unwanted species literally caught up in fishing.

Crossing paths

albatross 2
Wandering albatrosses have the longest wingspan of any living bird. Credit: JJ Harrison / Wikimedia.

The data recovered from the albatross trackers allowed researchers determine just how much time the majestic birds spend wheeling about fishing vessels hoping to pick up scraps and discards from the days’ catch.

The research found that during breeding, tagged Crozet wandering albatrosses patrolled over an area of more than 10 million square kilometres and as much as 79.5% of birds equipped with the loggers detected vessels, at distances up to 2500 kilometres from the colony.

“This high rate of encounter shows that a far higher proportion of the population are exposed to fisheries mortality risk than previously supposed, Waugh says.

The tagged birds showed varying patterns of encounter and attendance at vessels that challenge our perception of foraging behaviour of seabirds.”

The authors note the technology could also be applied to sea mammals and turtles.

Read more about the research on

‘Patrollers of the southern ocean’

Beyond tracking interaction between marine life and boats, the radar sensing GPS units offer another interesting benefit – the detection of illegal fishing vessels. As the authors write:

“Given the large direct and indirect impacts fishing vessels have on seabirds these devices could become a crucial tool for monitoring marine ecosystems.

“The ongoing development of XGPS which can be relayed by Argos or Iridium systems will further allow real time monitoring of the presence of vessels anywhere in the range of seabirds, which could thus become patrollers of the southern ocean, allowing better monitoring of fisheries, as well as seabird-fishery interactions.

“For example, on one occasion in the EEZ [Exclusive Economic Zone] around Crozet, a XGPS-equipped albatross detected an undeclared radar signal, i.e. probably an illegally fishing vessel. With such an integrated communication system, it could thus potentially inform authorities in real time of the location of illegal fishing vessels.”


Feature image: Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) in flight. Credit: JJ Harrison / Wikimedia.