New hope for the albatross

Posted: 13 April 2004

The British government and three of its overseas territories - the Falklands, British Antarctic Territory, and South Georgia/South Sandwich Islands - have ratified the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, thus strengthening the treaty which came into force in February.

The government will take steps to reduce the 300,000 worldwide seabird deaths caused by longline fishing every year.

UK Fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley announced the ratification at the Waterbirds Around the World Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. The UK has joined the five other nations which have already ratified the international treaty.

South Africa became the fifth country to ratify the treaty on the conservation of albatrosses and petrels, in November last year. It gives new hope that international protection may prevent the rapid slide into extinction of these fabulous birds.The agreement to try and save the albatross was signed in Canberra in June 2001, by officials from all southern hemisphere nations surrounding the Southern Ocean.

Black-browed Albatross. Photo: Tony Palliser
Black-browed Albatross. Photo: Tony Palliser
Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys) which was listed as Vulnerable in 2001 by IUCN - The World Conservation Union, is now listed as Endangered in 2003.© Tony Palliser

They pledged to protect these threatened migratory seabirds. Australia initiated the agreement in 1997 and was joined in signing it by Argentina, Brazil, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, South Africa, the United States and the United Kingdom.

Since then it has been ratified by Australia, Ecuador, New Zealand and Spain, but needed a fifth signatory to give it force. Under the agreement, 21 albatross species and seven petrel species will be protected.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has identified all 21 species of albatross as under threat from extinction (compared to just three in 1996 and 16 in 2000).

Longline fishing

It requires states to take specific measures to reduce seabird deaths from longline fishing. It also draws up wide-ranging plans to tackle other threats including habitat loss, marine pollution and introduced species, such as rats and feral cats, at birds' breeding sites. Margaret Moore, World Wildlife Fund - Australia's senior marine policy officer, explained that longline fishing, primarily for tuna, attracts seabirds by providing a supply of food through thousands of baited hooks which are set off the stern of fishing vessels and trail behind the boats for up to 120 kilometers (75 miles). Albatrosses and other seabirds dive or swoop on the bait, become hooked and are drowned when the baited lines sink.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) has listed 19 out of 21 species of albatross as threatened with extinction. The other two are cited as "near threatened".

"About one in every five baits they try to take, they get inpaled on the hooks and drown," said John Croxall, chairman of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and a biologist with the British Antarctic Survey. Currently, an estimated 300,000 albatrosses are killed each year from this alone, including an estimated 10 per cent of the world's Wandering albatross - the largest of the species.

Great wanderer

Wandering Albatross (<em>Diomedea exulans</em>). Photo: Tony Palliser
Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans). Photo: Tony Palliser
The Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) is listed as Vulnerable. All 21 species of albatross are now identified as globally under threat (compared to just three in 1996 and 16 in 2000). All are undergoing long-term declines, with significant numbers drowning after being caught accidentally on baited hooks set by longline fisheries.© Tony Palliser

The Wandering albatross, or Diomedea exulans, has a wingspan of nearly 12 feet and can reach a speed of 100mph. It was recently discovered that this wanderer voyages of over 1,000 kilometres each day over open water.

Unlike blackbirds, which mature swiftly and raise two nestfuls a year, the albatross has a lifespan of 50 years or more; breeding rates are very low and parents travel far and wide for food for their young. As a result, the albatross' chances of survival are further put at risk.

Birdlife International, which is active in 100 countries, welcomed the move by South Africa which is home to significant populations of four species of albatross: the wandering, grey-headed, Indian yellow-nosed and sooty albatrosses.