Every day, thousands of hooks and nets designed for fish catch seabirds – a global problem that is threatening many species of seabirds with extinction. But no fishing gear can do more damage than the gill net, which entangles and kills at least 400,000 seabirds every year.
What if all it would take to save her was a pair of googly eyes?
It’s not that easy, but a team of scientists, conservationists, and engineers are developing a device that has the potential to save many seabirds from gill nets. This device, known as a buoy with threatening eyes, is essentially a floating scarecrow.
A prototype was recently tested on long-tailed ducks in Küdema Bay in Estonia. The results of this study, published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, suggest that buoys with threatening eyes can reduce the number of seabirds within a 165-foot radius by up to 30 percent. While the buoy with the looming eyes won’t completely solve the problem, experts say it’s a step in the right direction.
It is not easy to prevent albatross, petrels, gannets, gannets and other sea birds from being caught in gillnets. The smell of a gill net laden with fish can attract seabirds from a distance. And when these birds dive into the water for a free meal, they can get entangled in the gill web and drown.
In 2018, conservationists from BirdLife International, a conservation organization, began brainstorming methods to prevent such occurrences.
“We thought that if we could prevent endangered seabirds from diving too close to the gillnets, we might finally be able to significantly control bycatch,” said Yann Rouxel, project leader at BirdLife International and lead author of the new study. It was then that Mr Rouxel and his team had the idea for a scarecrow.
He and his colleagues shared their idea with scientists from the Estonian Ornithological Society and engineers from Fishtek Marine, a fishing equipment company, and just over a year later, the buoy with the looming eyes was born.
Similar to the scarecrows that line the grain fields or the plastic clubs that sit on top of office buildings, the buoy with the looming eyes keeps birds away by intimidating them. The large, rotating eye-spots that sit on the buoy resemble the staring eyes of a large predator.
Last year, behind the buoy with the looming eyes, researchers placed several prototypes in Küdema Bay to see if they could effectively scare off the local long-tailed ducks. After 250 hours of observation, the team found that the presence of the beetle-eyed buoys reduced the number of long-tailed ducks within a 165-foot radius by 20 to 30 percent compared to traditional buoys.
“If we take the place of the diving birds, it is not surprising that large staring eyes on the surface of the water can keep them from approaching and mimic the gaze of a potential predator,” said Brendan Godley, professor of conservation science at the University of Exeter in England.
“It’s a great example of the kind of innovation that needs to be encouraged,” said Dr. Godley, who was not involved in the study.
The researchers also found that long-tailed ducks returned to the areas they left after the buoys with the looming eyes were removed, suggesting that the effects of the buoys were not permanent.
Although the prototype showed promise, more research and development is needed.
“Our previous prototype worked great, but it is currently too heavy and large to be used in gillnet fishing,” said Rouxel.
The researchers plan to test a smaller and lighter version in the Icelandic sea hare fishery soon.
If successful, these devices could be used to reduce bycatch of seabirds in small and large gillnet fisheries around the world. However, the buoy with the looming eyes is far from a panacea for protecting seabirds from fishing gear. Seabird bycatch levels are unlikely to be adequately reported or fully understood, and the problem will not be solved by googly-eyed engineering alone.
“However, it is unlikely that there would be a silver bullet solution,” said Rouxel. “So a toolbox of actions is probably our best option.”