Black, beautiful and endangered

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Adam Clow, Whitianga longliner holds black petrel for banding

Biz Bell and Adam Clow banding a chick

Wayne Dreadon, skipper Sir Allan McNab

Gavin Perry, skipper Carolyn Marie

Whitianga fishermen have a close encounter with rare seabirds...

28.05.2013

Black petrel chicks, with new glossy adult feathers, have recently left their burrows on Great Barrier Island, waddled to a prominent rock and launched themselves off on their long haul to South America. They stay at sea around Ecuador and Peru for three years before they come back to Mt Hobson, find a mate and nest.

Whitianga longline fishermen Adam Clow, skipper of the Southern Cross and Wayne Dreadon, skipper of the Sir Allan McNab and Leigh-based Gavin Perry, skipper of the Carolyn Marie, joined Biz Bell, bird researcher, on top of Mt Hobson to help band black petrels before they flew off.

“Five minutes after meeting Biz (the scientist) I was up to my armpit in a black petrel burrow, carefully pulling a bird out then holding it while she banded it.” Gavin says.

“They’re smart birds and have an extraordinary homing sense. The path they use is like a bird highway, at night, as black petrels from hundreds of burrows waddle to the rock they take-off from. After the chicks have left for South America the parent birds fly there, too, and, the following spring, they fly back to their burrows and meet the same old partner.”

It was also an amazing day for Adam. “The biggest thing for me was the realisation of how special and smart these birds are and how rare they are. I learned that they have a very low survival rate and that fishermen here and South America, take a big part in their decline.”

No fishermen like catching birds but some work harder than others to avoid it. Wayne, Adam and Gavin always use mitigation devices on their boats. The danger time is when they’re setting gear before dawn and birds want to dive on the baited hooks. They do a number of things to deter them, including towing Tori lines, which stream out behind the boats and frightens birds away.

They put weights on the line to sink the baited hooks fast so the birds won’t dive on them. Also, the bait is always thawed as it sinks faster than frozen bait. They make sure the deck lights are point inwards to minimise the visual presence of the boat at sea. And they never throw scraps overboard when there are hooks or lines around – tipping a bucket of fish scraps overboard is like a dinner gong for seabirds.

Gavin says he also avoids fishing where the black petrels are. In the summer months, when the birds are nesting and feeding chicks, they tend to be around Little and Great Barrier Islands and the Mokohinau Islands so he fishes in the Inner Gulf.

“This experience hammered-in the vulnerability of these birds and their importance as a species. It gave me a totally new respect for them. It would be great if all fishermen did this at least once,” Gavin says.

Wayne agrees that helping band black petrels was a primo experience. “Watching them waddle to their take-off rock and fly off, into the night, was a primeval experience. These birds have been doing this, from this place, for thousands of years. All fishermen are obligated to work as a team to look after black petrels so they will continue to have a place, here, for thousands of years to come.”