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Caught in the Act

Caught in the Act
Frigate birds fly into troubled waters

Hundreds of feet above sea level, the magnificent frigate birds stalk the azure waters below, waiting for the opportune moment to snatch their lunch from an unsuspecting boobie. The quick and agile creatures use their abilities to swoop down on other seabirds to attack and harass them until they give up their meals. Like a menacing school bully preying on a free lunch ticket, the man-o-war birds are the true pirates of the sky. But love them or hate them, the unique sky stalker currently faces the threat of danger and death from fishermen who threaten their livelihood while casting for their own.


The island of Great Tobago, off Tortola’s north shore, houses the Virgin Islands’ only frigates, and remains protected under National Parks and Trust. Currently, more than 500 pairs of the pirate birds live on the island, and thrive on its unscathed terrain and abundant surrounding corals. During a recent visit to the island, members from the Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society revealed a disturbing discovery of more than 50 dead frigate birds entangled in the monofilament line belonging to local fishermen.

The birds’ bullying feeding behavior, known as kleptoparasitism, has recently been getting them in trouble. JVDS Director Susan Zaluski noted after her recent visit to the island that these fearless feeding behaviours are finally catching up with the sly birds. “Oftentimes, the tempting fish, bobbing on the surface of the water, is in fact attached to a fishing hook and line,” she wrote in a report assessing her findings. “In cases like this, a typical response from the fisherman is to cut the line, leaving the bird to fend for itself. Then, the bird flies off, trailing the line, which usually gets caught on something and ends up killing the bird or causing sever injuries.” Then, she continued, the birds fly back to the colony where the trailing line tangles up other birds—usually juveniles.

Frigates also have unusual breeding habits: The duration of parental care of frigate birds is the longest of any bird, and the female feeds and cares for their single chick for over a year. Females breed only once yearly, so the loss of even a single juvenile is a severe blow to the colony’s overall population. However, Susan noted, theoverall solution to this troubling problem is clear: “Don’t cut the line.”

I spoke with local fisherman Kenny Turbe about the issue at Great Tobago, and he was quick to reiterate Susan’s sentiments, adding that educating the public on safe release techniques remains paramount in the frigate’s survival. “As fishermen, we need the birds, too,” he said of their mutual relationship. “They know where the fish is and they show us how to find them. … But what a lot of [fishermen] do is they see the frigate bird on their line and they say, ‘Oh, we’re going to get in trouble,’ and they cut the line,” leaving the bird hooked and tangled with heavy line.

Kenny, who assists the Department of Conservation and Fisheries, recently traveled with Susan to Great Tobago to help untangle dozens of injured birds. His findings, he said, were sobering. “There were so many dead birds,” he lamented. “I found a fishing line around one [frigate bird]—had to be at least 80 pounds [resistance]. There ain’t no way a bird like that is going to bust through a line like that.” To ensure fishermen—both local and tourist—understand how to safely fish around these feeding areas, more must be done to educate, he said. He suggested passing out flyers, putting up posters and enforcing mandates for charter boat companies to inform guests how to respond to potential encounters with hooked and tangled birds.  Currently, though, the problem continues to threaten the mighty frigates—the pirates of the sea.  

If you accidentally hook a seabird while fishing. . .

1. Slow the vessel down and bring it toward the bird—do not pull on the line
2. Lift the bird out of the water with a net to support the bird’s weight
3. Control the beak to avoid injury to yourself
4. Gently grasp the bill and locate the hook, and push the barb to the outside of the skin
5. Cut the barb and back the hook out
6. Ensure that all the fishing line has been removed and that the bird is otherwise uninjured before releasing


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