for National Geographic News
'God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!
Why look'st thou so?'With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
The albatross in Coleridge's famous poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, is killed for no real reason. It's a mindless act. The bird's death, and the Mariner's nightmarish fate, show what can happen when humans alienate themselves from the natural world.
Today, Coleridge's poem seems much more than just a fable. Modern-day mariners are killing tens of thousands of real-life albatrosses each year. The birds are being killed on hooks meant for fish. Killed for no reason at all.
Seafarers once believed the albatross a bird of good omen. As both relied on fair winds for their ocean travels, the bird was welcomed as a kindred spirit. To harm one was to bring bad luck.
These days many commercial fishermen see them as little more than a nuisance, and their deaths as purely incidental.
Longlining is a fishing method that uses hooks instead of nets. These lines, which can be 130 kilometers (80 miles) long, are set for open ocean species like swordfish and tuna.
But fish aren't the only marine creatures they catch. Seabirds, particularly albatrosses and petrels, regularly grab the baited hooks. Many albatrosses are dragged to their deathsmore than 100,000 each year.
Conservation groups now warn that 17 of the 24 albatross species face extinction unless urgent action is taken. They say illegal 'pirate' fishing and non-cooperation from key countries pose the main threat to the bird's survival.
At a United Nations fisheries conference held in Rome last month, conservationists branded 14 countries "longline laggards" for failing to implement measures to protect albatrosses and other seabirds.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization had set a 2001 target date for 27 countries to establish a national plan of action (NPOA) to combat the threat of longlining to seabirds. But the majority, including Argentina, China, and France, have yet to do so.
"Efforts to tackle the problem are being undermined because 14 irresponsible countries seem to be unwilling or unable to take the necessary action," said Leon Vilijoen of BirdLife International, a bird conservation group representing over 100 nations.
He added: "Unless these 14 countries develop NPOAs, globally threatened species such as the spectacled petrel and wandering albatross will be driven closer to extinction."
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