South Georgia's Albatrosses threatened with extinction

Posted: 19 June 2006

Three species of albatross nesting on the islands of South Georgia have declined at such an alarming rate over the past 30 years that unless these declines are halted or reversed the islands' albatrosses could face extinction.

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
New research reveals that the islands, a UK Overseas Territory, have lost nearly one third of their wandering albatross population since 1984 and that two other species breeding at South Georgia, the black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses, are also suffering losses.

In common with other albatrosses around the world, the major threat appears to be longline fishing. Research from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and BirdLife International suggests that up to 100,000 albatrosses annually - or one bird every five minutes - drown on the end of a longline fishing hook as they try to snatch bait.

Black-browed Albatross. Photo: Tony Palliser
Black-browed Albatross. Photo: Tony Palliser
Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys)© Tony Palliser
Sally Poncet, of South Georgia Surveys and the report's lead author, said: "It is well known that albatrosses world-wide are dying needlessly in long-line fisheries. Our survey has shown that South Georgia's albatrosses, in particular, are being pushed to the point where three species are threatened with extinction."

Dr Phil Trathan, Head of Conservation Biology at the British Antarctic Survey and a co-author on the report, said: "Our long-term research shows birds are most likely caught thousands of miles away from their breeding grounds. BAS scientists provide important advice to CCAMLR - the fishery management organisation that regulates fishing activity around South Georgia and elsewhere in the Southern Ocean.

"However, when birds feed beyond CCAMLR waters, especially off South Africa and South America, they are at greater risk and it is therefore important that bodies regulating these waters make them safe for albatrosses."

Dr Ben Sullivan, of the RSPB, said: "The decline of albatrosses on South Georgia mirrors declines from other South Atlantic UK Overseas Territories, especially the Falkland Islands. With one third of the world's albatrosses nesting on a UK overseas territory, we have a colossal responsibility for these birds. Worryingly, it appears that South Atlantic albatrosses are among the hardest hit populations in the world and without action these birds will have a perilous future."

As part of the Save the Albatross campaign, the RSPB and BirdLife recently launched the Albatross Task Force, a practical project to reduce the number of seabirds killed on longline hooks. Specially-trained task force members are helping long-line fishermen to adopt simple measures, such as setting streamer lines adjacent to the longlines to prevent birds becoming hooked.

Dr Ben Sullivan, added: "Fishermen would far rather catch fish than seabirds and the Albatross Task Force offers a real opportunity to help them achieve this."

Related links:

Birdlife's Save the Albatross Campaign

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP)

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