Breaking Tradition at the Frontline of Sustainable Fishing

Women have traditionally been banished from fishing vessels—but this hasn’t stopped Andrea Angel from being at the forefront of sustainable fishing on the high seas.

As part of a year-long research program to determine the effects of invasive mammal species like sheep, cats, rats and mice on island seabird colonies, Angel was tagging albatrosses on Gough Island, a rugged volcanic island in the South Atlantic Ocean, when a nearby Tristan albatross took flight. As the huge bird soared into the sky, Angel heard a whoosh of the wind through its feathers.

Looking up, she thought that she had “never seen anything so majestic or so completely in its element.” She was “completely awe-struck” by the realization that this magnificent bird would, in all probability, not alight on land for another 10 years. During this time the albatross would perhaps circumnavigate the globe, foraging and resting on the ocean waves, only returning to Gough Island to breed.

Witnessing this extraordinary bird taking flight, as well as the most intimate and touching behaviors of albatross parents as they brood and fledge their chicks, cemented Angel’s career path as a seabird conservationist and activist.

Albatrosses are a truly iconic, apex bird species. They are also a species of superlatives. With a wingspan of over 10 feet from tip to tip, they are the largest flying birds on Earth. These long-distance ocean travelers may live for 60 years or longer, and a pair bond may last for life. Albatross incubation, which lasts from 70 to 80 days, is the longest incubation period of any bird species, and great albatross chicks can take up to 280 days to fledge. Raising a chick requires an enormous investment by both parents; they take turns foraging at sea while the other parent guards the chick on land.

Around 300,000 seabirds, 100,000 of which are albatrosses, are caught each year by tuna longline fleets as bycatch. This has been the cause of massive seabird population declines; 17 out of 22 albatross species are at risk of extinction, making them the seabirds of highest conservation concern.

As BirdLife South Africa’s Albatross Task Force Leader, Angel has had a significant impact on mitigating albatross and other seabird deaths in South African waters through intensive engagement with often-reluctant vessel owners, captains and crews. She goes onto their boats, talks to them, listens to their stories, takes heed of their problems. She recommends inexpensive mitigation measures such as setting lines at night so that seabirds can’t see baited hooks, reducing deck lighting, weighting lines so that they sink and using bird scaring lines to distract and confuse seabirds enough to keep them away from trawl cables and baited hooks

Through the demonstration and correct use of these easily-deployed mitigation measures, albatross and other seabird deaths have been reduced by a massive 95 to 98 percent in South Africa’s hake trawl fisheries—an astounding conservation success story that caught the attention of the Common Oceans ABNJ Tuna Project. 

Harvesting tuna is a big business: Tuna fisheries comprise approximately 16 percent of the value of all marine capture fisheries, and have an estimated value of $17 billion annually for the most important tuna species, providing income for the more than 85 countries that catch tuna commercially. Most of us will, at some point, enjoy a tuna salad or tuna sandwich.

Through the efforts of all five tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, efforts are being made to sustainably manage tuna fisheries on a region by region basis—but tuna species are highly migratory. To address the need for sustainable fishing and biodiversity conservation practices in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction (ABNJ), the Common Oceans ABNJ Tuna Project was initiated, funded by the Global Environment Facility, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) as the implementing agency. BirdLife International, through BirdLife South Africa, became an implementing partner in the seabird component, a collaboration which has enabled Andrea to transfer the knowledge and experience she has gained in helping to mitigate albatross and other seabird bycatch in South African waters to the high seas tuna fishing fleets of other countries.

In doing so, it has placed her at the forefront of sustainable fishing and seabird conservation—a place where, for far too long, trailblazers like her weren’t always made welcome.


Carole Knight is an investigative photojournalist, environmental activist and advocate for sustainable development based in the Western Cape of South Africa.