Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Fish Feud

The episode of Fish Fight in which I appeared is available to watch here:

Fish Fight Series 2 Episode 2

I was extremely unhappy with the way I was portrayed in this program, and with the fact that it contained misleading information, innaccuracies and ommitted some important information. Below is a copy of the open letter I wrote to Hugh and his production company, a copy of Hugh’s response and the three newspaper articles which resulted from the debate.

My letter to Hugh (25 Feb 2013)

Dear Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall,

my name is Ruth Brown, you met me in February 2012 when you came to Bird Island, South Georgia, to film an episode of ‘Fish Fight’, and I appeared in this episode which aired on Thursday last week (21st Feb) on Channel 4. I am writing to protest about the unfair and unflattering light in which you portrayed me, and the glaring inaccuracies in information that you presented to viewers.

In your program you implied that the research I do is paid for by licence money received from the krill fishing industry, and that I am therefore unable to speak freely about my opinions of that industry. This is not true. I work for British Antarctic Survey, who do not receive any money from fisheries and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, a government body that funds independent scientific research. British Antarctic Survey fund and manage all work that is carried out on Bird Island, yet were not mentioned once in your program.

During your interview with me, I repeatedly told you that the data I collect on penguins and other seabird species is handed over to CCAMLR (the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), an international consortium that manage all fishing activities in the Southern Ocean. CCAMLR use this data to inform their decisions about fishing practices and to ensure that Southern Ocean fisheries are sustainable. I find it remarkable that in a program dedicated to fisheries in the Southern Ocean, you did not once mention CCAMLR, the international body that governs fisheries in the Southern Ocean.

In your program you mentioned that penguin populations are declining, with the implication being that this is a result of competition with the krill fishery for their main prey food, krill. This is at best misleading. It is true that macaroni penguin populations at South Georgia are in decline, and I would direct your attention to a recent paper on the subject (Trathan et al 2012 ‘Ecological drivers of change at South Georgia’ Ecography 35 (11), 983-993), which discusses the possible causes of this decline. The authors conclude that the most likely reason for declining populations of macaroni penguins at South Georgia is an increase in the population of Antarctic fur seals, which also feed on krill. Indeed, fur seals have undergone a population explosion at South Georgia in recent years despite the presence of the krill fishery, a fact which was not mentioned in your program.

In your program you asked me how much krill an individual penguin consumes in a single meal. The amount of krill consumed by animals in this ecosystem is an important point. The estimated total amount of krill consumed by macaroni penguins in a year is around 1.6 million tonnes, and the estimated total amount of krill consumed by Antarctic fur seals in a year is around 6.8 million tonnes (Trathan et al 2012). In contrast, the average annual krill catch by the South Georgia fishery is 43,500 tonnes (Trathan et al 2012), and is therefore insignificant compared with the amount of krill consumed by the animals. These figures were not mentioned in your program.

Whilst you were on Bird Island, one of your production team (Lucy Meadows) told us that the krill boat on which you filmed experienced zero by-catch. In my opinion this is an astonishing and noteworthy fact, given the high levels of by-catch seen in other fisheries. However, this fact was not mentioned in your program.

In your program you suggested that populations of great whales in the Southern Ocean have fully recovered following the end of commercial exploitation. This statement is misleading. Whilst some species of whales have recovered to pre-exploitation levels, others have not, and a very modest amount of research on your part would have shown you this (see, for example, Lotze et al 2011 ‘Recovery of marine animal populations and ecosystems’ Trends in Ecology & Evolution 26 (11), 595-605).

In conclusion, the episode of ‘Fish Fight’ which covered fisheries on the Southern Ocean was poorly researched and misleading. Many important facts were left out, as they would clearly have compromised the pre-conceived journalistic slant of the program. You and your production company (KEO films) repeatedly ignored the research and opinions of scientists and conservationists who have spent decades studying the ecosystem around South Georgia, believing that you are better placed to comment on that ecosystem than they are.

I am an enthusiastic supporter of campaigns for sustainable fishing in general, and of the ‘Fish Fight’ campaign in particular. It therefore saddens me that you have chosen to tarnish this noble cause with what can only be described as a tawdry piece of hack journalism. I am ashamed that I was a part of it, albeit unwittingly.

Dr. Ruth Brown.

Hugh’s response

Dear Ruth,

Thanks for taking the time to write with your views on the latest Fish Fight programme. I am sorry that you feel disillusioned with the campaign, and that you feel we misrepresented your views on Marine Protected Areas or the krill fishery.

Let me respond to your points in the same order you presented them. You say that we implied that the research you do is paid for by license money received from the krill industry. In fact in the film it is Dr Martin Collins of the Government of South Georgia who introduces the idea that the fisheries generate £3 million a year, and we specifically state in the voiceover “the bottom line is that the fisheries operating round South Georgia bring in 3m pounds a year for the Government, and that money is what keeps the whole place running”. This is an accurate summery of Martin’s explanation to us on camera – and it contains no specific reference as to how the research programmes on the island are funded. We never said or implied that the research on Bird Island, or anywhere else, was funded by krill fisheries or any other fisheries.

You seem disappointed that we never once mentioned BAS, CCAMLR, or NERC. This is because television needs to work hard to make complicated ideas and stories comprehensible and accessible to a wide audience, and including acronyms and too many auxiliary parts to the story often works against this guiding principal. We do however explain clearly that there is an “international management body” which sets quotas for the krill boats (ie CCAMLR), we just never mention it by its name.

When we talked about penguin populations declining, and we did this more than once during the programme, we made it clear that what is known is that penguins are declining due to habitat loss. What we actually said is that “It is not yet known what effect fishing for krill might have on this fragile ecosystem”, and again later in the programme “What is harder to measure is the effect that the growing krill fishing industry is having on the local wildlife”. It is precisely because of this uncertainty that we go on to talk about the need for “future proofing” our oceans, and setting up more restrictions on the fisheries working in those areas, management plans which we are delighted to see are currently being discussed and implemented.

You say that fur seals have undergone a population explosion in recent years in South Georgia and that we fail to mention this fact in our programme. What we actually say (over shots of lots and lots of fur seals) is that the populations of whales and seals around these islands are “almost back to pre-hunting levels. In fact South Georgia has now become the most important breeding site in the world for fur seals”, which I think gets the point across. You say that it is misleading to suggest that all the whales have recovered to pre-hunting levels, and I agree, we may have over-simplified this point, and I’m happy to post a clarification on our website along the lines of: “During our latest Fish Fight programme we gave the impression that all the whale species around South Georgia have recovered to their pre-hunting levels. In fact, although humpback whales have shown strong recovery, Blue Whales and fin whales haven’t yet recovered to pre-hunting levels, and there is a lack of data on Sei whales and Antarctic Minke whales.” Perhaps you, or others working at BAS could help to clarify these facts?

You are right that we didn’t include the fact that the Saga Sea has little or no bycatch while it is fishing for krill. We did film a sequence talking about this on board the boat, but due to a lack of time, we did not include it in our final edit. As I mentioned before, it is important to keep the story telling of a TV documentary clear and simple, and as you know, bycatch is not something we are looking at in this series, having covered it so comprehensively in the first series of Fish Fight 2 years ago. I do not feel that this omission misrepresents our story in any way.

You conclude by saying that our programme was poorly researched and misleading, and suggest that we came to South Georgia with preconceived ideas of what we wanted to film. I can assure you, however, that we take great pride in getting our facts right, and putting across forceful and engaging arguments to our viewers to try to encourage them to take an interest in marine conservation issues. Although we thoroughly research our stories before we leave the office, we never arrive on location with preconceived ideas of what we will discover there. One of the joys of documentary making is filming what you find, and following the stories that emerge on the ground. Unfortunately, when we arrived on South Georgia, it appeared to us that everyone we were due to film had been briefed about what they could and could not say to us. It was later confirmed that a briefing from the BAS press office and representatives of the South Georgia Government had indeed taken place before our arrival in South Georgia. This made it quite difficult for us to feel like we were ever getting heartfelt and true responses to our questions.

I hope this answers some of your queries and concerns, and that we can continue to have an informed and productive conversations about marine protected areas and how best to manage the astonishing seas round the Southern Oceans.

All best wishes

Article from The Sun (by Ben Jackson, 27 Feb 2013)

Scientist raps chef Hugh in fish feudCELEBRITY chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was accused yesterday of fishy tactics in a TV conservation show.

Hugh warned on Channel 4’s Save Our Seas last week that fishing of krill — shrimp billed as a “miracle” supplement on the High Street — was ruining the food supply of seals and penguins.

But British zoologist Dr Ruth Brown, who was on the show, said she was “ashamed” of the “misleading” evidence.
She claims it wrongly implied she received money from the krill fishing industry.

In a blast at the chef, she added: “You and your production company repeatedly ignored the research and opinions of scientists.”

Article from The Daily Mail (by David Wilkes, 27 Feb 2013)

Hugh and a war of words over penguins: Marine scientist accuses chef of 'glaring inaccuracies' in campaign against overfishing• Dr Ruth Brown interviewed on Fearnley-Whittingstall's Hugh's Fish Fight
• She said in letter afterwards she was 'ashamed' to have taken part
• Marine scientist said programme was 'poorly researched and misleading'
• But Fearnley-Whittingstall insisted his show was 'meticulously researched'

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign against over-fishing hit choppy waters yesterday after a marine scientist featured in his TV show branded it ‘poorly researched and misleading’.

Dr Ruth Brown, a supporter of his fight for sustainable fishing, accused the multi-millionaire chef of ‘glaring inaccuracies’ in his investigation into krill fishing in the South Atlantic and of presenting her in an ‘unfair and unflattering light’.

She is unhappy about apparent suggestions that the penguin population is falling because they are struggling to find food as a result of krill fishing.

Fearnley-Whittingstall travelled 8,000 miles to speak to the 36-year-old zoologist and other conservationists working in South Georgia, the British territory close to Antarctica, for the latest episode of Hugh’s Fish Fight.

Fishing for krill is burgeoning in the surrounding waters. The tiny shrimp-like crustaceans are used for feed that helps turn farmed salmon pink and to make krill oil tablets, part of the lucrative health food market for products containing omega 3 fats.

It is understood Dr Brown, who has worked there as a field assistant for the British Antarctic Survey collecting data on penguins and other seabirds since 2010, was interviewed for around three hours for the programme.

But she was left ‘ashamed’ of having taken part after she saw the programme, aired last Thursday on Channel 4.

The Old Etonian chef claimed people on the island might be ‘wary’ of backing a new protected area around it where no fishing could take place because the fishery generates £3million a year for the government and ‘that money is what keeps the whole place running’.

In fact, the BAS receives no funding from fishing firms. In a letter to Fearnley-Whittingstall, Dr Brown wrote: ‘You implied that the research I do is paid for by licence money received from the krill fishing industry, and that I am therefore unable to speak freely about my opinions of that industry. This is not true.’
She also criticised him for implying that penguin numbers are falling because of competition with the krill fishery for their main food.

Dr Brown said research has indicated the most likely reason for declining populations of macaroni penguins is an explosion in the population of Antarctic fur seals, which also feed on krill.

Her letter ended: ‘[This] episode of Fish Fight was poorly researched and misleading...’
Fearnley-Whittingstall, 48, who this week led a march to Westminster to urge the Government to do more to protect UK seas, insisted the programme was ‘meticulously researched’ and denied it said or implied that BAS research was funded by krill fisheries.

He said the show made clear that it was not yet known what effect fishing for krill would have on penguins.

Article from The Guardian (by Leo Hickman, 27 Feb 2013)

Scientist calls Hugh's Fish Fight 'a tawdry piece of hack journalism'Chef and Antarctic scientist in Facebook row over research funding claims made in Channel 4 programme

A bird scientist interviewed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for his Fish Fight series on Channel 4 has posted a scathing open letter on Facebook accusing him of portraying her in an "unfair and unflattering light" and producing a "tawdry piece of hack journalism".

Dr Ruth Brown, a penguin specialist based at the British Antarctic Survey's research station at Bird Island, off South Georgia, was interviewed on the programme broadcast last Thursday. Fearnley-Whittingstall asked Brown, and her colleague, what impact intensive krill fishing would have on penguin populations in the southern Atlantic, and whether marine protection zones would help to protect bird species reliant on krill. In an awkward exchange, Brown told Fearnley-Whittingstall said she needed time to consider an answer. But the programme moved on without showing her giving an answer.

In her letter, Brown objects to what came next. In the subsequent voiceover, the chef and food campaigner said: "I can't understand why these scientists and naturalists are so wary about backing the idea of a new marine protected area around South Georgia."

"The bottom line is that the fisheries operating around South Georgia bring in £3m a year for government and that money is what keeps the whole place running. As so often in fish conservation, I'm starting to feel caught up again in a web of bureaucracy, politics and, frankly, money."

Brown responded in her letter: "In your programme you implied that the research I do is paid for by licence money received from the krill-fishing industry, and that I am therefore unable to speak freely about my opinions of that industry. This is not true. I work for British Antarctic Survey, who do not receive any money from fisheries and are funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, a government body that funds independent scientific research."

She concluded: "The episode of Fish Fight which covered fisheries on the Southern Ocean was poorly researched and misleading. Many important facts were left out, as they would clearly have compromised the preconceived journalistic slant of the programme.

She said she was a supporter of Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight campaign, which today won a notable victory with EU ministers deciding to ban the practice of throwing healthy fish back into the sea. "It therefore saddens me that you have chosen to tarnish this noble cause with what can only be described as a tawdry piece of hack journalism. I am ashamed that I was a part of it, albeit unwittingly."

On Tuesday Fearnley-Whittingstall wrote a point-by-point response to Brown and issued a statement to the Guardian: "The programme was meticulously researched and we take great pride in getting our facts right, and putting across engaging arguments to our viewers to try to encourage them to take an interest in marine conservation issues. We spoke to many experts in the course of making the series, and the programme is a fair and accurate account of all the research we consulted and of our experience filming in South Georgia – although inevitably it was not possible to include every single detail in a one-hour programme."

A spokeswoman at the British Antarctic Survey said it supported Brown, but that it was a "personal matter". In a "science briefing" posted on its website the BAS said: "BAS scientists do not receive funding from any commercial krill fishing company. However, BAS scientists do collaborate with fishing companies in order to understand how the fishery operates."

All good things come to an end

The time has finally come for me to leave Bird Island. It feels like only yesterday that I arrived, yet somehow two and a half years have passed. What a crazy, bonkers, amazing, challenging experience it has been. I have been woeful at writing blog entries for the past year, so here are some events and photos from my last few months on the island.

New people!

The first ship call after winter was relatively late this year, in mid-November. By this time the beach and jetty were fairly packed with large male fur seals who were busy defending territories. This made unloading cargo and moving it up to base extra exciting, since male furries don’t like it when people encroach on their territory and have a tendency to charge at any trespassers, growling and baring their formidable teeth. As well as the usual cargo and fuel barrels, this year saw the delivery of three large storage tanks for the bulk fuel project, which also had to be unloaded and manoeuvered up the beach through the ranks of angry seals. As a result, First Call stretched into a three-day epic, but eventually everything was offloaded and nobody had had their face ripped off by a fur seal. Tea and medals all round!

Permanently angry: a male fur seal.
The first bulk fuel tank arrives.
Difficult working conditions on the beach.

Unloading the tank.

As always First Call saw the arrival of new people from the outside world, including Jerry, Steph, and Hannah, who will be replacing me, Jen and Jon respectively as the penguin, albatross and seal assistants. For the past five months we have been teaching them everything we know and they are now all fully qualified animal wranglers ready to take the reins when we leave. As well as the three new assistants we also met Tamsin, the summer Base Commander, and Craig, who has taken over from Rob as our technical genius

Team Bird Island, summer 2012/13: Jerry, Hannah, Jon, Tamsin, Jen, Jaume, Steph, Craig, me.

Fish Feud

One of the more unusual and exciting things to happen to meon Bird Island unfolded completely by surprise in February this year. As you may know from a previous entry in this blog (Something a Bit Fishy), Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his entourage came to the island about a year ago to film an episode for the new series of Fish Fight, looking at the fisheries around South Georgia. As I explained in that blog, it was clear when they arrived that they had a pre-conceived idea of the message they wanted to convey in the program (that all fisheries around South Georgia should be banned), a message which I do not agree with at all. I was interviewed by Hugh for the program, an interview which lasted around 45 minutes. Towards the end of the interview, Hugh’s line of questioning became very bullying and coercive, as he tried to get me to agree with his point of view.

The episode of Fish Fight aired on Thursday 21st February. As expected, Hugh’s portrayal of the krill fishery around South Georgia and the research we do at Bird Island was biased and unrealistic, and the show itself was misleading and inaccurate. The parts of my interview which appeared in the show included clips of me asking for some time to think about the questions he was asking before I answered. I have been told that it is standard practice to pause and think about your answer during a recorded interview, and these sections are usually edited out. However, they can be left in to make the interviewee look hesitant, unsure of themselves or reluctant to answer, which is precisely what Hugh and his production company did. The overall implication of the program was that I had been somehow gagged by my superiors, and that the reason for this was that our research is funded by licence fees which come from the krill boats. This is, of course, complete nonsense.

Naturally I was a bit miffed at being depicted as a paid-off stooge of the fisheries. After thinking about this for a few days I decided to write a letter of response to Hugh, and post it on the Fish Fight Facebook page. I posted the letter on Monday 25th, not expecting anyone to take any notice of it at all. Imagine my surprise when, the next day, I discovered that my letter had been picked up by various people and organizations on Facebook, and had spread quite widely throughout the internet. It had also come to the notice of some national newspapers, who had made enquiries about it to the BAS press office. The day after that the story was reported in The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Guardian, who all seemed sympathetic to my position.

For anyone who is interested, I have reproduced my letter, Hugh’s response to it and the three resulting articles in the next entry on this blog (Fish Feud).

Jerry has a holiday

A few weeks ago Jerry started experiencing a rather alarming pain in his teeth. The pain receded after a few days, but since no-one actually knew what was causing it, the powers that be decided that he should go and see a dentist in the Falklands. Luckily a ship was coming in anyway, so Jerry was whisked away and is due to return on the Ernest Shackleton at Last Call. In the meantime I have been promoted back to chief penguin wrangler, and will remain as such until I leave the island. Although I was hoping for some time off as Jerry took over more and more of the work, I am secretly quite pleased with this turn of events, because it means I get to work with my beloved geeps right up until the bitter end.

Hardcore geep - nesting on solid ice.
Dad shouts encouragement in the background as an egg is laid.

Last days

The Ernest Shackleton was scheduled to come in on Monday 11th February, to complete Last Call and take away everyone who is not staying for the winter, including me. I therefore assumed that Sunday 10th was going to be my last full day on the island, and spent it wandering around taking some final photos of the animals, visiting some of my old haunts and occasionally sobbing gently to myself. It was a beautiful, clear, sunny day, exactly what you would want on your last day here. I climbed the second highest peak on the island (Tonk), visited some of the molly colonies, and ended up at Big Mac, where the penguins are just starting to come back from their pre-moult foraging trips.

View of Bird Island and South Georgia from Tonk.
A squadron of penguins.
Black-browed albatross.

Wandering albatross.

A brand new wandering albatross enters the world.
Skua squabble.
Skua finds a tasty treat - an abandoned geep egg.
Seal athletics.
Submarine puppy.
Dinner time at the shag household.
Grey-head chick.
Macaroni penguin.
My penguin wrangling days are over. For now.

Monday 11th dawned, and it could not have been more different than the day before. A massive dump of snow, high winds and blizzards all day. It was hard to believe I was even on the same island. Sea conditions meant that there was no chance of the ship coming in that day, so I had no choice but to spend the whole day playing in the snow and watching the fur seal puppies playing in the snow. As I write this (Tuesday 12th) the Shack has just decided to head to King Edward Point first and then come back to us when the swell has died down a bit, probably on Thursday. So I get a few bonus days on Bird Island. I’ve been here for 863 days now, but I’m still glad to have a couple more.

An unexpected blizzard doesn't seem to phase the puppies.
This puppy slept right through it.
Snow puppy.
I thought this was supposed to be summer?
Goodbye Bird Island! I'll miss you!

Team Bird Island, winter 2013: Craig, Steph, Hannah, Jerry.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A Masterpiece of Modern Cinema

It's that time of year again where citizens across the Antarctic continent dust off their camera equipment, don their fake moustaches and start practicing their comedy foreign accents for the 5th Annual Antarctic 48-hour Film Festival!

Avid readers may remember this event from last year. It is an annual competition open to any bases in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic that wish to participate, where the challenge is to produce a short film over the course of a single weekend. On Friday evening a list of five elements which must be included in the film are sent out via e-mail, and then each base has 48 hours to write, shoot and edit together a film of about 5 minutes, to be submitted to the competition the following Monday. Each base then watches all the films that have been submitted and votes for their favourite in each of five categories - Best Film, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Acting and Best Use of the Elements. The winners of each category receives the glory of victory plus a chance to choose one of the elements for next year's competition.

The films that are produced are always endearingly amateurish and often hilarious (sometimes unintentionally), but made with such enthusiasm and ingenuity that you can't help but love them. Last year Bird Island won exactly no prizes in the competition, but we have high hopes this year with our masterpiece 'Quantum of Cybermice'. You can view it on YouTube by following the link below. I won't go into any detail about the plot, but suffice to say that it has everything a good movie should have - explosions, extraordinary acting, graphic scenes of violence, an albatross, more explosions and a man in a dress. Enjoy.

The five required elements were:

Character: a queen.
Sound: breaking ice.
Line: "I'll save you".
Object: a computer mouse.
Object: a map of your station or local area.

watch 'Quantum of Cybermice'

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Something A Bit Fishy

The last person I ever thought I’d meet on Bird Island was celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, but way back in February he rocked up with a film crew to record some footage for the latest series of his ‘Fish Fight’ TV show. I say ‘rocked up’, but obviously we had known about this visit for months in advance. Nevertheless, Hugh and Co. took us somewhat by surprise on the day they arrived. Usually when a ship says it will be with us at 9am that means it will be manoeuvring its way into the bay at about 9.30, but on the day they were due I got out of bed to discover Hugh and his entourage already sitting around our dining room table. I barely had time to swig some coffee before we were off out to do some filming of the macaroni penguins at Little Mac colony.

That's Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall! In our kitchen!

Fish Fight originally aired in January 2011, and was the beginning of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign to end the practice of discards in European fisheries. This hugely wasteful practice is a direct result of fishery policies set by the EU. Fishing boats have quotas dictating the weight of any particular species that they are allowed to catch, and it is illegal for them to bring more than the quota limit onto land. However, if a boat is targeting more than one species of fish it may reach the quota for one species before reaching the quota for another. In this case boats often continue to fish, and any over-quota fish that are caught are thrown back into the sea, usually dead. The original four Fish Fight episodes which explore this phenomenon are both compelling and horrifying, and I would thoroughly recommend that you watch them if you have not already. If you are anything like me you will be tearing your hair out at the insane laws that have led to this situation, and the appalling waste it creates. At least Hugh’s campaign seems to have caused the European Commission to sit up and take notice, and it appears that changes to the Common Fisheries Policy and a ban on discards will eventually come about. You can sign the Fish Fight petition yourself, and read more about the campaign, here:

Hugh gets to know the girls. Left to right: Cat, Jen, Hugh, me, Hannah.

First to be interviewed were myself and Cat Horswill (a PhD student who works on macaroni penguins) talking about penguins, and to make it a bit more interesting the interview was conducted at Little Mac so that we could have some actual penguins sauntering across the foreground. This was my first experience of being filmed for TV, so I was childishly excited when the sound recording guy concealed a radio mic in my scarf. There then followed a protracted session of filming Hugh, Cat and I walking up to the penguin colony whilst chatting about penguins. Every few minutes we had to stop and go back a bit and film the same thing again from a different angle, whilst having the same conversation over again. It was a little disconcerting – the magical continuity of TV unravelling before my eyes. Eventually we got to the penguin weighbridge and chatted about how it allows us to study penguins without disturbing them, as some obliging penguins demonstrated how it works. All fairly innocuous. However, as the interview progressed, Hugh’s line of questioning became more leading and emotive. Did we think the krill fishery was a good idea? Did we think that the expansion of the krill fishery would have a catastrophic effect on penguin populations? Do we care about the conservation of these animals and if so why are we not supporting the exclusion of all fisheries from around South Georgia? Hugh’s real agenda for South Georgia is to push for a 200 mile exclusion zone to all fisheries around the island, a policy which is not supported by the South Georgia Government, nor, as far as I can tell, by anyone at BAS. Cat and I tried gamely to deflect these questions by re-iterating that we don’t make those kind of decisions, we just gather the data and pass it on to the people who do, but Hugh and his director were not happy with this answer. It became clear that they just wanted us to say something damning and inflammatory about the krill fishery – ‘the krill fishery is going to KILL ALL PENGUINS!’, or something along those lines, and when we refused to they got rather irate and huffy. The director in particular seemed convinced that we were trying to hide something, and that there was a ‘conspiracy of silence’ within BAS to prevent us from answering their questions about the fishery. It did not seem to occur to him that if everyone in BAS was saying the same thing (i.e. that the South Georgia krill fishery is extremely well managed, and there is no evidence of any impact on the native wildlife), that perhaps this is the truth, rather than that a group of conservation scientists who have dedicated much of their lives to studying and protecting the wildlife of South Georgia have formed an alliance to protect a highly damaging fishery from which they derive no benefit whatsoever.

The weighbridge in action.

After the interview was over everyone was feeling a bit disgruntled – the Fish Fight people because they did not get the sound-bite they wanted, and us because we felt like we had been tricked into saying things we did not really believe and were not qualified to comment on in the first place. But in the afternoon the film crew went off to do some filming at Big Mac, and Hugh came back to base and made us a cake, which was delicious, and everyone was a lot more chatty and relaxed, and the disgruntlement began to fade. Sustainable fishing is a subject very close to my heart, and I applaud the efforts of the Fish Fight team in bringing it to the attention of the nation, and battling for real change with the European Commission. But I also feel that attacking one of the best managed fisheries in the world is perhaps a waste of their time and energy.

A few weeks after Hugh’s visit the South Georgia government announced the establishment of a Marine Protected Area covering 1 million square km of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands maritime zone, and including 20,000 square km of no-take zones around the coastlines of the islands. The creation of this MPA has taken years of planning and negotiation, and is not simply a response to attention from TV crusaders. “This is a great step forward, but it’s not enough!” shrieked Hugh in a press release, “we want a no-take Marine Reserve for the entire 200 mile zone surrounding these islands!” But one cannot help feeling that this development might have taken the wind out of his sails somewhat. It will be interesting to see what the outcome is when the new Fish Fight series finally airs. At the moment I do not know when this will be, but look out for it later in 2012. There should definitely be some footage of Bird Island and the wonderful animals that live here, and possibly also some footage of yours truly, in the role of Chief Spokesperson for Macaroni Penguins.

Group photo with cake. It was delicious.

The real stars of the show.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Back to work

If anyone is still checking this blog with any sort of regularity then apologies for the lack of posts in recent months, and thankyou for your perseverance. Summer is upon us in the South, and with it comes a much increased workload and little time for idle web-based ramblings. Hopefully the following will give you a bit of a catch-up on Bird Island news from the last few months.

Giant petrels

On the 10th of September I was rudely awoken from my semi-comatose winter state by the start of the giant petrel rounds. Two species of giant petrels (or geeps as we affectionately know them) breed on Bird Island, and one of my jobs is to find and mark all nests within the Giant Petrel Study Area. Since we need to know the exact laying date of each egg this means patrolling the area every day to look for new arrivals. Unfortunately the giant petrels do not nest in nice, discrete, dense colonies like some of the other birds here, so the geep study area is necessarily large – around 28 hectares – and it takes a good five or six hours to cover on foot. So whereas on the 9th September I was happily lounging around stuffing my face with Quality Street, on the 10th I found myself trudging up and down hills through deep, snow-covered tussock for the better part of the day. Still, it was nice to be out and about again after the winter hiatus, and the daily geep round certainly helped me to shed some of the additional pounds I had gained through the aforementioned face-stuffing.

A pair of Northern giant petrels reinforce their relationship through mutual grumbling.

Room with a view: a geep nest on North Cliffs.

Daily checks of the geep study area continue until five days after the last egg is laid, which this year was the 27th November. After this the geep round is reduced to a more leisurely once-a-week check to see which nests have failed. At the time of writing all of the giant petrel eggs have hatched, meaning that there are a lot of small, angry, grey fluffballs on the island. Some people think that giant petrel chicks are ugly, but those people are raving lunatics one and all.

Who are you calling ugly?

Protective parents.

All by myself: after a couple of weeks chicks are left alone while both parents forage.

With so many hungry mouths to feed, every dead seal is a bonus.


Mmmmm, regurgitated dead seal.

First Call

At the end of October the James Clark Ross parked itself next to Bird Island and set about delivering all the stuff we need for the coming year, and also quite a lot of stuff we don’t really need and no-one remembers ordering. First Call was the usual barely controlled pandemonium, with semi-unpacked boxes on every surface and approximately 12 million people milling around in between them. Proceedings were enlivened this year by the delivery of the Bobcat, a small digger that will be used for various building projects that are happening later in the season, and a shipping container full of additional tools and supplies. Bird Island is not really equipped to handle deliveries of heavy plant, in fact the jetty can barely support the weight of more than two people at once, so transferring the Bobcat from ship to shore posed an interesting dilemma. In the end a kind of makeshift gangway was constructed using some metal tracks and pieces of wood, and the Bobcat was driven ashore by facilities engineer Graham, a man with nerves of steel. The operation went very smoothly, largely because BAS operate on the principle that if there are enough people standing around watching, and those people are wearing enough hi-visibility clothing, then nothing can possibly go wrong.

First assault on the beach.

Constructing the gangway.

The Bobcat comes ashore.

Unloading the container.

Winner of the 'Most Outstanding Use of Hi-Visibility Clothing' award 2011.

The all-new penguin weighbridge

During First Call we received delivery of Penguin Weighbridge 2.0, the sleek and shiny new replacement for the existing penguin weighbridge. Readers with very good memories may recall a description of the penguin weighbridge from an earlier post – it is essentially a machine the automatically weighs penguins as they walk across it (every home should have one) and also reads the electronic tags which are implanted under the skin of many of the penguins in our study colony. It allows us to gather a continuous stream of data throughout the season without bothering the penguins at all. The main improvement of the new system is that it uses much less power than the old one – requiring just three 12-volt batteries rather than nine. These batteries are charged by a solar panel, which means that the weighbridge will operate all season with almost zero maintenance.

Installing the new weighbridge. Step 1: RTFI.

Jiggling some wires.

The new system in place, with some customers waiting to try it out.

Team penguin weighbridge: Mark, Cat, me, Mike.


First Call also meant the arrival of some New People from the Outside World, and sadly the departure of two of our winterers, Paul and Jenn. In fact the first new people arrived about a month before First Call, when we welcomed Jaume (senior scientist, seals), Andy (the boss of Bird Island) and Jenny (field assistant, albatrosses) to the island. At First Call our numbers swelled further with the addition of Jon (field assistant, seals), Rob (tech services), Cat (PhD student, penguins) and Allan (Base Commander). Just before Christmas Jaume and Andy departed and were replaced by Richard (senior scientist, flying birds) and Hannah (PhD student, albatrosses).

After six months of living with the same three people you might think that a sudden influx of strangers would be unsettling, but in fact the change of pace was quite invigorating. On such a small base the group dynamic changes every time people come or go, but getting to know the newbies is always interesting. Also I now have to cook just once every eight days. Result!

Team Bird Island, spring 2011
back row: Rob, Jaume, Andy, me
middle row: Mick, Jen, Cat, Allan
front row: Jon

Macaroni penguins

This summer we have a PhD student with us who is working on the macaroni penguins, and I have been helping her collect her data. Cat is studying penguin foraging behaviour, which involves attaching small GPS tracking devices to individual penguins to find out where they go at sea. The devices are left on for a few days, then when the penguin returns to the colony the device is removed and a blood sample taken. Analysis of the blood sample will then tell Cat what the penguin has been eating.

Here on Bird Island we are lucky enough to have a penguin colony that is perfect for scientific studies of this nature. ‘Little Mac’, as it is known, is small (around 400 nests), easy to access and the same penguins come back to breed here year after year. The size of the colony means that it is easy to locate birds that you have previously attached devices to. This would be much harder at ‘Big Mac’, another colony on the island which contains around 40,000 nests. Another advantage of Little Mac is that there is a field hut next to it, into which one can retreat for a cup of tea if the weather turns nasty, which it frequently does. The hut is now also doubling as a laboratory, where Cat can process her blood samples straight away using a portable generator and centrifuge.

Little Mac colony and the Loveshack. Part of Big Mac is visible in the background.

Penguins as far as the eye can see at Big Mac.

Cat's laboratory in the Loveshack.

Extreme centrifuging.

A breeding pair of macs greet each other noisily.

Mac chicks hatch around Christmas time.

Happy Chrtistmas!

Christmas Day on Bird Island was celebrated in the traditional manner, with food, drink and silly paper hats.

Team Bird Island, Christmas 2011: Jen, Richard, Hannah, Allan, Jon, Mick, me, Cat, Rob.

Christmas dinner: the aftermath.

The most awesome Christmas cake ever made.

Mick entertains the ladies.

Burrowing petrels

Whenever I need a break from wrestling with penguins there are always some burrows to be checked. Last summer one of our visiting scientists put some very small tracking devices (and I mean seriously tiny – just a few grams in weight) onto various species of nocturnal burrowing petrel, and now it is my job to try and get the devices back. Burrowing petrels are tricky to work with compared to, say, wandering albatrosses. People who work on wandering albatrosses can see their study species from about half a mile away. People who work on burrowing petrels spend a lot of time fruitlessly sticking their arms down random holes in the ground and finding nothing in them. Luckily the petrels tend to come back to the same burrow each year, and the burrows containing the birds I am looking for are all marked with wooden stakes, which makes things a whole lot easier for me. So I have been spending a lot of time lately up to my armpit in soil, trying to grab hold of a tiny, angry seabird that is biting the ends of my fingertips. Never a dull moment here on BI!

Who lives in a burrow like this?

An Antarctic prion!

The first part of summer: in pictures

Freshwater Beach is covered in breeding fur seals again.

Big males are itching for a fight.

Anything goes in this ultimate fighting championship.

For the loser: nothing. For the winner: lots of lovely lady seals.

This puppy was born a few minutes earlier and is looking a bit confused, understandably.

Skuas perform their maternity service, removing the placenta from a newborn pup.

Playful puppies.

Come down here, I'll bite your arms off.

The walkway is awash with puppies.

I'm forever blowing bubbles.

Peeping puppy.

A rare treat for us on Bird Island - an elephant seal pup born on Johnson Beach!

Last year's wandering albatross chicks are almost ready to leave.

Attempting to get airborne.

A fledgling admires the view.

Meanwhile, wandering albatross adults begin courting again.

Mini! A recently hatched brown skua chick.

These parents took exception to me photographing their chick.

A light-mantled sooty albatross on its nest.

And a blue-eyed shag on its nest.

Grey-headed albatrosses are back...

...and courting.

Gentoo chicks start small.

But quickly get bigger.


We love each other. A pair of gentoo chicks, these two are probably siblings.