A Nelson fisheries specialist who has worked with the commercial industry to reduce the risk of seabirds getting caught wants recreational fishers to follow suit.
Richard Wells, a specialist with non-profit fisheries management organisation the DeepWater Group, said there were ways of reducing the risk of snaring a seabird, and methods for safely releasing birds that had been caught accidentally.
He said commercial fisheries bycatch was measured by law but the impact on birds from recreational fishing was still relatively unknown.
A Ministry of Fisheries report estimates that the number of seabirds caught by recreational fishers could be as high as 40,000 a year.
The figures are based on various surveys and the popularity of recreational fishing in New Zealand. According to figures provided to the report by Sport and Recreation NZ, it is estimated that 16.5 per cent of the country's adult population goes sea ﬁshing each year, with 2.5 per cent (81,000 people) going ﬁshing at least once a week.
The birds most often caught were petrels, followed by seagulls. Captures of albatrosses, shags, gannets, penguins, and terns were also recorded.
Wells said statistics were useful for raising awareness but were not always great at explaining the extent of an issue, but if people were "clever enough to catch a fish, they should be clever enough not to catch a bird".
He said the problem was not limited to people fishing at sea. It also involved those in areas where seabirds nested, sometimes a long way inland, including river valleys.
"Everyone who has a cup of tea in the Mckenzie Basin is a threat when they let the dog out of the car and it chases a dotterel off its nest."
Wells, who fishes recreationally, grew up in the Marlborough Sounds and remembers seeing birds swooping on fish being reeled in from the wharf at French Pass. He said they learned quickly to associate people and boats with food if the fishing was not properly managed.
"I once saw a mollymawk caught on a rod at Preservation Inlet [in Fiordland] and this great big boof of a guy just went to bits - he freaked out.
"Birds flap, they look pecky, but it was really clear to me that when people catch birds, they don't know what to do next."
The ministry report's said there were ways for line ﬁshers to mitigate seabird captures, including ensuring that weighted baits left the surface rapidly, using barbless hooks, and carrying dehooking equipment to help free hooked birds.
Wells said prevention was always better than cure, and the message to fishers was to not attract seabirds in the first place. However, this was difficult when birds had become habituated to boats, particularly when trails of fish offcuts were tossed over the side.
"It's no different. really, to throwing lollies from the pavement on to the street. Eventually, someone will get run over."
Wells said he hoped Nelson fishers would be active in helping to change the culture.
REDUCING SEABIRD CATCH RISK
1.Manage what offcuts and bait you throw overboard so birds aren't tempted. Never throw any plastic (netting or nylon snipped off) into the sea – it is a death trap for birds.
2. Use good-quality gear. Birds have become accustomed to human fishing habits, and know when to lunge when hooks surface. Use good sinkers that leave the surface rapidly, and barbless hooks.
3. Carry gear such a large towel to help get the bird under control and to protect yourself, and pliers to help free hooked birds. Always cut the nylon from the hook if it cannot be removed.