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Endangered seabirds, including live albatrosses and petrels, are being killed in brutal circumstances by having their bills hacked off by fishermen in three South American countries.

According to a study published in the journal Biological Conservation, fishermen targeting tuna, swordfish, and halibut in the southwest Atlantic have resorted to vile and cruel methods of releasing birds caught on their longline fishing equipment. Instead of helping these birds, they are simply cutting off their beaks. These birds are then mercilessly thrown into the ocean and left to die a slow and tragic death.

Seabird bycatch is one of the biggest causes of the global decline of several marine bird species worldwide. Commercial fishing vessels use a range of dangerous gear, including longlines, trawls, purse seines, and gillnets. Each poses a different type of risk to seabird species and other marine animals, including whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles attracted to fishing gear by the bait, fish discards, and the lure of an easy meal.

Longline fishing is particularly dangerous for marine birds. The technique - frequently used to fish for pelagic species - involves a length of cable with baited hooks spread out at regular intervals along it. When the lines are being set, birds often dive for the bait attached to the hooks and get caught themselves. When this happens, there are safe ways for fishermen to help free the birds while reducing the risk of harm, but these methods are not always applied.

Reports that fishermen were cutting the beaks off seabirds first emerged five years ago when a disturbing photo posted on social media showed a live albatross with the top half of its beak sliced clean off. This led to a group of researchers gathering as many records of this kind of avian mutilation as they could. What they found revealed a worrying trend that has conservationists the world-over utterly shocked.

Research by an international team, including the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London, has found that albatrosses and petrels are among eight different species subject to this horrific practice.

British scientist Dr Alex Bond has been involved in documenting these cases, some of which date back over two decades. Bond said it appears to be a very “specific thing” that fishermen in this region are doing. Operators are literally “taking a blade and cutting the bill off” to more expeditiously unhook the bird and then hurdling the bird overboard.

Although longlining occurs in much of the world's oceans, beak mutilation appears to be very localized, with cases stemming out of the coastal waters of Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Beakless birds, including endangered species such as petrels and the northern royal albatross, have been washing up on the beaches of South America's Atlantic coast due to brutal fishing practices.

The scientists said they have found 45 birds with injuries, including the bill mutilations, and fear the actual number could be far higher. It’s believed these birds were either left to starve or killed on the spot, with additional injuries including broken limbs and head injuries among the observations collated from dead and living specimens. There is no way to know just how many of these threatened birds are being killed due to injuries obtained from fishermen. Experts have warned that the cases documented most likely represent “a small percentage” of a much larger picture.

“To think that a human being would resort to such a horrendous and callous act of cruelty to another life is beyond me,” said a shocked David Barritt of Network For Animals (NFA).

“There are so many humane ways fishermen can prevent birds, and other marine species, from becoming entangled in fishing gear, such as water curtains or jet sprays that would stop birds diving for bait lines alongside measures such as setting hooks at night. There is no justification for hacking the beak off a bird and leaving it to suffer.”


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