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Extinction Near for Albatross, Experts Warn

By James Owen
for National Geographic News
April 17, 2003
 
'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 deaths—more 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."

BirdLife International also highlights the threat from pirate fishermen. According to UN estimates their vessels now account for up to a quarter of the world's total fish catch.

Richard Thomas, BirdLife International's communications manager, said: "It's very hard to prevent pirate fishermen from killing seabirds because they operate beyond the rules. They just throw their longlines out the back and don't give a damn what's going on."

Flags of convenience

Pirate vessels are registered with 'flag of convenience' countries like Cambodia and Honduras. This helps them to avoid fisheries regulations.

"It's frighteningly easy to register a boat with a flag of convenience country," said Thomas. "You can do it over the Internet for about U.S.$200."

Many of these vessels head for the southern oceans—to the major albatross feeding grounds. It's hidden treasure the pirates are after. Not gold, but Patagonian toothfish. Also known as Antarctic cod, Chilean sea bass, and mero, it fetches around U.S.$6,000 a tonne (U.S.$6,614 a ton).

The scale of the problem was revealed last month by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

The convention's scientific committee says since 1996 pirate longliners have killed up to 144,000 albatrosses and 400,000 petrels in Antarctic waters alone.

Albatrosses are particularly at risk from longlining because of the huge distances they cover. With their long, narrow wings, providing maximum lift and minimum drag, they are perfectly designed for harnessing the winds and wave-deflected airflows of the world's most inhospitable seas.

The birds clock up serious air miles as they scour the southern oceans for food. Ornithologists have recorded single feeding trips of 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) by nesting wandering albatrosses.

Seafarers have long been aware of their aeronautical abilities. In 1887, shipwrecked sailors on the remote Crozet Islands decided against the usual message-in-a-bottle routine. Instead, they tied their SOS around an albatross's neck. Two weeks later the note was found on a beach in southwest Australia—5,600 kilometers (3,500 miles) away.

This year more remarkable feats of flying endurance were revealed by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

Using the latest tracking technology, its scientists discovered albatrosses make the equivalent of 20 return trips to the moon (over 10 million miles) in a lifetime.

But these same findings led to more worrying conclusions about the likelihood of albatrosses encountering longline fishing vessels.

The BAS links declines in the breeding populations of four albatross species in South Georgia with longlining.

This follows the development of a new device called a geolocator. Unlike satellite tracking devices, it measures light levels to estimate a bird's position.

"The big advantage of this device is that it's very small, can be attached to a ring on a bird's leg, and lasts much longer than conventional tracking systems," said BAS scientist Janet Silk.

Crucial Data

The geolocator allows researchers to track a bird for two years, providing crucial data between breeding periods when albatrosses remain at sea.

"This new information is telling us where the birds are going and the risks they face from fisheries," added Silk.

However, albatrosses are also regurgitating clues right where they nest—snapped lines and other longline debris often turn up with fish fed to chicks.

For a bird with an extremely slow rate of reproduction—one chick every two to three years—even relatively small losses to longlining could endanger its survival. Scientists say an increase in adult mortality of just two to four percent could halve an albatross population in 50 years.

Given this, it's no wonder the albatross has the highest percentage of endangered species of any bird. For example, the world's entire population of Amsterdam Island albatrosses now numbers less than 100.

And yet the heavy death toll inflicted by longlining is relatively easy and inexpensive to remedy.

Practical solutions include bird-scaring devices, weights and underwater setting tubes to keep lines beyond the reach of birds, dyeing bait an unappetising blue, and fishing at night.

Richard Thomas suggests such measures would actually make economic sense for fishing companies.

"It's in their interest to catch fish not birds," he said. "Studies have found that up to 30 percent of the bait gets plundered by seabirds."

Last year Japanese tuna boats fishing in New Zealand waters had to introduce measures to reduce their seabird by-catch. Deaths were cut from 4,000 to just 12. Curiously, the same controls did not apply to New Zealand vessels.

This arbitrary approach to saving the magnificent albatross from extinction is symptomatic of conservation efforts globally.

Those who haven't got the message yet would do well to read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

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