Flight of Bird Patrol

Article Written by Renz Miciel Trovela
Illustration by Cedric David Cortez
Posted 26 November 2021

For Filipino homes, I think we can agree that one of the most common dishes we prepare for meals is fried fish; it is cheap, readily available, and easy to cook. In fact, fish and its derivatives rank third in the most abundant proportions of the average one-day food intake of a Filipino household. [1] That shouldn’t be surprising though; as an archipelago, the country should be naturally rich in marine resources and the people living in coastal areas are usually employed in the fisheries industry with almost 1.6 million people nationwide. [2] 

Sadly, some fisherfolks still engage in illegal fishing activities such as those using explosives, active gears, and very fine mesh. In the Philippines, this equates to almost Php 37.8 billion worth of water resources lost. [3] However, it is important to note that illegal fishing happens not only in the Philippine seas but also to the rest of the world’s oceans, where billions of dollars worth of marine stocks are at stake. Having the coast guards patrol the world’s ocean cover to monitor fishing activities is impractical and almost impossible; given this, the project on albatross trackers sounds like a brilliant plan to me, but what are its downsides?

First, let’s look into the project’s overview. The idea is to develop a surveillance system over exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and international waters, to monitor fishing activities and to provide authorities with geographic information, powered by large seabirds’ interaction with fishing vessels. [4] A strong candidate for seabird patrol is the albatross, wherein 50 is enough to cover 22 million km2 of the ocean, and can individually sense fishing vessels as far as 30 km. [5] Data loggers will be attached to the albatrosses, which will then transmit the geolocation data to respective authorities [4] – clever, right?

From this, it would be beneficial for the reason that the albatross-fishery interaction and tracking technology can more efficiently survey a large part of the oceans than what human strategies permit. Human-made satellites can provide optical images of fishing vessel locations, but it can easily be distorted due to changing atmospheric conditions. This can be resolved with high-resolution optical imagery; however, it covers a smaller area than the regular optical images stated before. [6] On the other hand, the trackers installed on the albatross are equipped with Argos antenna for real-time data transmission, a solar-powered rechargeable battery, and a global positioning system antenna capable of recording at 1-second to 1-hour intervals. [4]

Not to mention, the albatross trackers can potentially spare the lives of operations monitoring officials, who are responsible for tracking catches and preserving marine resources at large. They are primarily subject to safety and human rights violations ranging from assault to even murder on-board as no regulations from the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations safeguards their human rights. [7,8]

Additionally, it can save people’s taxes from being spent on costly monitoring of EEZs. Reports say that navy ships, in-charge of sea-based surveillance, infrequently enforce the monitoring of the EEZs because it is costly in terms of crews, vessels, and equipment. [4,9] Furthermore, this type of oceans and fisheries management,  surveillance, and control is absent for international waters. [4] This may be caused by the overlapping multinational organizations for ocean governance, making it complicated to define unified protection and preservation policies for international waters. [10]

But of course, albatross trackers are also imperfect. Age truly matters in the albatross tracker project; the study showed that adult albatrosses were more likely to interact with fishing vessels in comparison to juvenile albatrosses. [4] Given this, the loggers are attached to actively breeding adults, which have sea-foraging and nesting phases, so that the total data of the device can be recovered easily. [4] Although they can glide over the seas throughout the year, wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) spend the breeding season from November to July [11], interrupting the system with “dead air” for data collection. 

Despite being free from malpractices, it is still important to probe the recovery practices of the observers once this has been implemented, as the wandering albatross is now listed as an endangered species also due to the depleting food stocks and sources of nutrition aggravated also by the illegal fishing operations itself. [12]

Additionally, the data loggers are glued to a special type of adhesive tape, which is directly attached to the back feathers of the albatross. There are no reported negative impacts of the tracker to the growth and development of the albatross, as it only comprises 0.46 to 0.93% of the bird body weight. However, this seabird loses feathers while molting for three to six months, which causes the devices to detach from the back feathers and eventually get lost in the vast oceans. [4] It is quite a disadvantage for the government or various organizations to implement a system that is guaranteed to face loss of equipment.

Delving into these, I still believe this scheme is a promising key for us to efficiently reinforce our ocean surveillance and control, and to further save a billion-dollar worth of marine stocks, provided that it does not interfere with the welfare and development of the wandering albatross. 

However, the underlying issue here, calling for a more urgent resolution, is answering why fisherfolks opt to take part in illegal fishing practices if there are already bountiful resources at bay. Could it be pure negligence of the regulations encircling their livelihood? Or is it an even grave problem in the systems that supposedly support the fisherfolks? Perhaps, the latter urges the former to arise. Definitely, we should look forward to sustainably governed oceans and wildlife; but more importantly, we should value the well-being of the frontliners in the country’s fishing industry. After all, bird patrol cannot be the sole solution to our problems.


  1. Department of Science and Technology – Food and Nutrition Research Institute. [Internet]. Household Food Consumption Survey. Taguig City, Taguig: DOST-FNRI; 2020 p. 1–33. Available from: http://enutrition.fnri.dost.gov.ph/site/uploads/2018%20ENNS%20Dissemination_Household%20Food%20Consumption%20Survey.pdf 
  2. Suh D, Pomeroy R. Projected economic impact of climate change on Marine Capture Fisheries in the Philippines. Frontiers in Marine Science. 2020;7.  
  3. Chavez  L. Philippine artisanal fishermen cry for help as illegal fishing empties municipal waters [Internet]. Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. PCIJ; 2021 [cited 2021Nov23]. Available from: https://pcij.org/article/6777/philippine-fishermen-cry-help-illegal-fishing-empties-municipal-waters 
  4. Weimerskirch H, Collet J, Corbeau A, Pajot A, Hoarau F, Marteau C, et al. Ocean Sentinel Albatrosses locate illegal vessels and provide the first estimate of the extent of nondeclared fishing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2020;117(6):3006–14.  
  5. Collet J, Patrick SC, Weimerskirch H. Albatrosses redirect flight towards vessels at the limit of their visual range. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 2015;526:199–205.  
  6. European Association of Remote Sensing Companies. Detect and monitor illegal fishing [Internet]. EARSC and OGEO Portal: Bringing EO user communities together. European Commission; [date unknown; cited 2021Nov23]. Available from: https://earsc-portal.eu/display/EOwiki/Detect+and+monitor+illegal+fishing 
  7. New York University. Oversight of Fishing Vessels Lacking, New Analysis Shows. NYU News [Internet]. 2020Feb18 [cited 2021Nov23]; Available from: https://www.nyu.edu/about/news-publications/news/2020/february/oversight-of-fishing-vessels-lacking–new-analysis-shows.html 
  8. Ewell C, Hocevar J, Mitchell E, Snowden S, Jacquet J. An evaluation of regional fisheries management organization AT-sea compliance monitoring and observer programs. Marine Policy. 2020;115:103842.  
  9. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United. 3. Monitoring, Control and Surveillance: Definition and context [Internet]. An introduction to monitoring, control and surveillance systems for capture fisheries. [date unknown; cited 2021Nov23]. Available from: https://www.fao.org/3/v4250e/v4250e03.htm  
  10. World Ocean Review. Politics and the oceans [Internet]. World Ocean Review. [cited 2021Nov23]. Available from: https://worldoceanreview.com/en/wor-4/politics-and-the-oceans/on-the-difficulty-of-governing-the-sea/ 
  11. Young People’s Trust For the Environment. Albatross (wandering) [Internet]. Young People’s Trust For the Environment. 2014 [cited 2021Nov23]. Available from: https://ypte.org.uk/factsheets/albatross-wandering/breeding-5e050f07-1dc7-477a-adcd-dfe1fbc0b194 
  12. Dickman C. Wandering albatross (diomedea exulans) – endangered species listing [Internet]. NSW Environment, Energy and Science. 2019 [cited 2021Nov23]. Available from: https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/topics/animals-and-plants/threatened-species/nsw-threatened-species-scientific-committee/determinations/final-determinations/1996-1999/wandering-albatross-diomedea-exulans-endangered-species-listing

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