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New Zealand is using its own fleet of albatross spies to look for illegal fishing

Data collected from albatrosses carrying sensors could be used to search for illegal fishing off the coast of New Zealand.

Two Antipodean wandering albatrosses. Source: Kath Walker

New Scientist reported this week that birds carrying radar sensors have been used in the Indian Ocean to spy on fishing boats, with more than a quarter of vessels there found to be operating illegally.

The sensors strapped detect radar signals from fishing ships, and then log them against location and time data. That data is then cross-checked against AIS (Automatic Identification System) records.

AIS data effectively declares where a ship is at all times, and illegal fishers often turn their AIS system off to avoid detection - if an AIS record isn't available for a radar detection, there's a good chance the fishermen were operating illegally, New Scientist wrote.

Albatrosses make excellent fishery spies, because they naturally gravitate towards fishing vessels for a chance at an easy meal, and can traverse long distances at sea.

Researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research strapped sensors to 169 birds between December 2018 and June 2019, and turned them loose in the Indian Ocean.

The data they collected showed that, of the ships operating within a country's exclusive economic zone, a quarter had their AIS systems disabled.

Here in Aotearoa, Fisheries New Zealand has also collected similar data as part of an albatross tracking programme, which will be analysed to find instances of illegal fishing.

Rebecca Blowes, Acting Deputy Director General of Fisheries New Zealand, confirmed that 20 Antipodean wandering albatrosses collected such data early last year after being released in February.

"Fisheries New Zealand and the Department of Conservation have been working together to better understand the distribution and foraging range of New Zealand albatross species," Ms Blowes said.

"In January 2019, we placed 20 radar detection tags on Antipodean Albatrosses and were able to track their movements between New Zealand's subantarctic islands and the west coast of South America.

"The majority of radar detections received were within New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone, and as part of our analysis we will check these against reported fishing activity in the same locations."

A spokesperson confirmed that a report into whether the birds found any illegal fishing is due to be completed next month.