The plight of our sea birds

New Zealand plays host to 86 seabird species, with 11 listed as Nationally Critical, 7 Nationally Endangered and 10 Nationally Vulnerable. Many of our seabirds are more threatened than our land birds — but why? Largely for the same principal reasons as our threatened land birds: loss of habitat and predation. However, fishing is now recognised as the major threat to many of our seabirds, which are attracted to fishing boats and may get tangled or hooked in fishing gear.

black petrel bait hi res
Black petrel diving for bait

Whilst attention has focused on the role commercial fishers play, the spotlight is now turning to our recreational fishing community. New Zealanders love to go fishing. In the northeast region alone (between Sulphur Point, Bay of Plenty and Waitangi, Northland), 4.8 million fisher hours of line fishing from trailer boats occurred during 2004–2005. Millions more hours can be attributed to people fishing from the shore along our extensive coastline.

Most fishers won’t ever hook or entangle a seabird, but some will. Those few that do add up when there are so many of us fishing.  Certain species are so threatened that even the death of a single bird really does matter.

To help prevent seabirds being attracted to your boat when fishing (adapted from

  1. Fish Tidy: Keep any bait on board in closed containers and maintain a clean deck, free of any fish waste.
  2. Fish Fast: When you do bait up, sink both your bait and burley fast and deep, preferably beyond the diving depth of birds (6 metres).
  3. Distract or Deter Birds: If birds do get attracted to your boat, try to create a safe zone around the boat; some boaties use the deck hose to spray towards birds, and some use a partly empty milk bottle bobbing just above the water’s surface to act like a scarecrow to dissuade birds.

Birds to keep watch for when fishing include Buller’s shearwater, fluttering shearwater/pakaha, black petrel/tāiko, flesh-footed shearwater/toanui, grey-faced petrel/oi and Cook’s petrel/titi.

The many species of petrels and shearwaters are difficult to distinguish, especially on a lumpy sea, but observing their markings and behaviours will help you determine who’s who and which fish are present.

  • Buller’s shearwater are often seen at boil-ups feeding on small fish driven up to the surface. The entire world’s population of this bird breeds on the Poor Knights Islands, off Tutukaka.
  • The fluttering shearwater/pakaha are often seen in a large flock, feeding at the surface or resting in a group. They fish for schooling baitfish being pushed up by predators like kahawai and trevally.
  • Black petrel arrive in New Zealand from South America in late October in preparation for breeding. They feed on small squid, fish and crustaceans, and are most commonly seen during February to May when they are collecting food for their chick.
  • The flesh-footed shearwater is easily mistaken for a black petrel as it is a similar size and dark colour, but has pink feet and a more yellow bill. They tend to follow boats and will dive on anything resembling food.
  • Grey-faced petrel, commonly known as mutton birds, dive for food or scavenge from the surface, eating squid, crustaceans and small fish.
  • Cook’s petrel is a smaller grey-and-white petrel that has its main breeding colony on Little Barrier Island.

Find out more about recreational fishing and Forest & Bird’s ‘Save our Seabirds’ campaign here:

Emma Cronin

Emma Cronin has been appointed Forest & Bird’s Seabird Liaison Officer, Recreational Fisheries. Her focus is to help fishers minimise the tangling or hooking seabirds. If you would like Emma to give a talk at your local group or school, email


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