The incidental mortality of seabirds in tuna longline fisheries is estimated for the continental South African Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Fishery observers accompanied 13 fishing trips and observed 108 sets (143 260 hooks) during the period 1998–2000. Despite most lines being set at night, seabird bycatch rates were high, with a mean of 1.6 birds killed per 1 000 hooks. Japanese vessels (1% effort observed) had a higher bycatch rate (2.6 birds per 1 000 hooks, range per trip 0.1–5.4) than South African vessels (0.8, range 0.0–4.3; 17% effort observed), possibly as a result of gear differences. Bird bycatch differed regionally in relation to the numbers of birds attending vessels. In international waters off the Northern Cape and southern Namibia, where there are few birds, only one bird was caught on 93 600 hooks (0.01 birds per 1 000 hooks). Shy Thalassarche cauta, black-browed T. melanophris and yellow-nosed T. chlororhynchos albatrosses, and white-chinned petrels Procellaria aequinoctialis were killed most frequently. Based on 1998–1999 fishing effort, simple extrapolation suggests that 19 000–30 000 seabirds are killed annually in South Africa’s EEZ, of which 70% are albatrosses. Confidence in these estimates is low, given the small proportion of effort observed, but it is clear that urgent steps are needed to reduce seabird bycatch within South African waters.