Saving albatross, on sea and land

A black-browed albatross caring for its
chick. Albatrosses are attentive parents,
with breeding behaviour adapted to
empty and safe islands. They therefore
have no evolutionary defence against
insidious new threats, introduced by
people, such as predatory mice. While
mice eat their chicks alive, the albatross
parents sit by with no sense of their
chicks’ plight.
(Image: Save the Albatross Campaign)

A northern royal albatross in flight near its
colony in Taiaroa Head, New Zealand.
Albatrosses range over huge areas of
ocean, spending over half their lives in
flight and regularly circling the globe.
(Image: Wikimedia)

An infant albatross with deep wounds
inflicted by mice. Gough Island in the
Southern Atlantic Ocean has a population
of some 1-million mice, with devastating
effects for the large ocean birds that
breed there.
(Image strictly copyright Ross Wanless.
This image may not be republished or
redistributed in any way.)

A mouse on Gough Island with the
remains of its much larger prey, a petrel
chick.
(Image strictly copyright Ross Wanless.
This image may not be republished or
redistributed in any way.)

Jennifer Stern

With a wingspan greater than the height of the tallest man and over half their lives spent in flight over the seas, albatrosses have a special place in the human imagination. But these great birds, evolved to fill a unique evolutionary niche, are under threat from both huge fishing fleets and the smallest of predators.

Albatrosses wander the southern seas skimming the ocean rollers for years at a time. They occasionally land on the water to sleep but, it is thought, can actually catch a few winks while flying. No-one knows for sure, but scientists think that on long flights they may, like dolphins, transport themselves using one hemisphere of their brain, while sleeping with the other.

On their long flights albatrosses feed on marine carrion, as well as krill and other sea-surface creatures. Their eyesight is good, but not much use for finding food over the featureless ocean – at least not until they’re almost on top of their lunch. They also dip their feet into the sea to test the temperature and somehow use the information to find out whether there’s a meal in the vicinity.

Their most effective sense is smell, as most of their food is dead and floating on the surface. Albatrosses fly enormous distances to find small patches of food scattered over a vast area. This may be the remains of a dead whale, a patch of krill associated with upwelling, a plankton bloom, or even a spawning event.

Animals such as squid all spawn together over a short period and then, conveniently for the albatrosses, die en masse, floating to the surface. The albatrosses’ food-finding instincts have served the bird well for millennia, but in the last hundred years or so things have changed.

Deadly bait

The last century has seen a revolution in commercial fishing. Refrigeration now allows huge fleets to travel far across the sea, catching and processing enormous numbers of fish. The once-empty southern oceans are now densely populated with trawlers and long-line fishing boats. Unfortunately, these almost exactly replicate the feeding conditions of albatrosses, and other sea feeders such as petrels.

Long-line boats lay enormously long fishing lines with baited hooks out the back of the vessel. The lines and bait, which is not exactly at its freshest, float on the surface, sending out deliciously attractive olfactory signals to passing albatrosses.

The birds fly down and, as they have done for thousands of years, snatch the morsel from the sea surface. But that morsel is attached to a hook, so the bird is snared, dragged behind the boat, and drowned.

It’s estimated that long-line fishing kills more than 100 000 albatrosses a year. That’s one every five minutes. Two albatrosses will have been dragged to a cold and lonely death by the time you have finished reading this article.

Fishing trawlers are also deadly to the birds. Trawling nets are enormous – about 50m in length and filled with up to 20 tons of fish on a successful drag. As the net surfaces it is pulled to the boat, and the catch comes within reach of albatrosses and other birds – a veritable feast. The birds may survive a nibble or two, but eventually they get tangled in the net, dragged underwater, and drowned.

The upshot is that the great bird’s numbers are declining at an alarming rate, with 19 of the 22 species of albatross listed in the Red Data Book, a global compendium of threatened and endangered species of plants and animals, compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

Safe on land?

But it’s not only at sea that albatrosses are threatened. They breed almost exclusively on empty oceanic islands, so they have evolved in an unthreatening environment. They are totally safe in the air and, before commercial fishing, were virtually unthreatened in the water – although they could get nabbed by an opportunistic seal or shark.

In 2001 a group of ornithologists spent a year on Gough Island, a cold volcanic island rising from the South Atlantic Ocean at a midpoint between the southern tips of Africa and South America and the northern coast of Antarctica. They made it a priority to find out how well the albatrosses were breeding, given the birds’ severe mortality at sea.

The scientists counted the pairs of incubating adults in January and, after hatching, in September counted the surviving chicks. The figures were frightening.

Expecting a 60% to 70% breeding success, they were horrified to find it was closer to 30%. More than half the chicks had died. And they had no idea why – although they had a few suspicions.

Ross Wanless, a PhD candidate from South Africa’s University of Cape Town, spent a year on Gough from October 2003 to September 2004 to find out what was happening to the chicks. The potential suspects included some kind of disease, poor feeding conditions, the high mortality of adults at sea – causing abandonment of the chicks – or, perhaps, predation by mice.

Mice are not indigenous to Gough. Albatrosses evolved to breed on land entirely free of terrestrial predators so, with no natural land enemies, they have no natural land defences. The odd skua may drop in to steal eggs or chicks but the albatrosses could deal with that. They’d see them flying in and, with a good deal of squawking and wing flapping, see them off in a typically avian fashion.

For thousands of years there were no mammals – and certainly no humans – on the birds’ breeding islands. But everything changed with the arrival of people.

People came with passengers, small companions that had a huge impact on the delicate ecosystems of the southern islands. In 1949 five domestic cats were brought to Marion Island to deal with a mouse problem at the meteorological station. But the cats found burrowing petrels tastier than mice, and their numbers exploded. By 1977 there were 3 400 cats on the island, threatening to drive the birds to extinction. The resulting eradication programme, started in 1982, only managed to remove all cats from Marion by the early 1990s.

Gough Island is home to an estimated 1-million mice. Cute, harmless little creatures, one would think.

Wanless found otherwise. Like his predecessors, he counted the incubating adult pairs as a basis from which to measure breeding success. But about a month after the chicks had hatched, he began to find bloodied, dead and dying little albatross fluffballs.

The mice were, literally, eating the chicks alive, sometimes taking up to a week to finish one off. And all the while the parents would sit there, unaware that their chicks needed help. They had no evolutionary reference for that kind of threat.

Save the Albatross Campaign

Its lifetime of lonely voyaging makes the albatross resonate in human culture. It’s an agent of karma in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and, even, material for Monty Python. The opened wings of the great albatrosses are the widest of any bird, extending over 3.4 metres (11 feet) – a span far larger than the height of the tallest man. They are magnificent birds, and something had to be done.

The Save the Albatross Campaign (STAC) is an international organisation set up to find ways to end the breeding and feeding threats to the great bird. One of its priorities is vermin control, with the mice of Gough Island soon to go the way of the cats of Marion Island.

The campaign also works with the fishing industry to find an answer to the problem of “by-catch” – a euphemism for animals inadvertently killed in the efficient process of commercial fishing.

The solutions are win-win because fishing boats actually do want to only catch fish, not albatrosses, which have no commercial value. Stopping albatrosses from taking bait will reduce fishing companies’ wastage, and improve their bottom line. STAC works at the levels of both the big fishing commissions, or Regional Fishing Management Organisations (RFMOs), and individual crews and fishing companies.

On the big scale, the campaign’s objective is to get RFMOs to acknowledge the problem, and take action. There has been good progress. The next step is the mandatory inclusion of mitigation measures in long-line and trawling fleets. These would include setting lines at night when albatrosses don’t feed, making the long-line bait sink quickly so the birds can’t get to it, and bird-scaring lines. The last are, in effect, marine scarecrows – long lines with scary, noisy, fluttering streamers set out before the lines or nets are laid. The birds find them terrifying, and keep away.

Scaring lines are another win-win part of the campaign. With STAC’s help, previously unemployed people in Ocean View in Cape Town have started small businesses to make the bird-scaring lines. STAC then buys the lines, and gives them to the fishing boats for free.

Unlike dolphin-friendly labelling on tuna tins, there is currently no labelling system for albatross-friendly seafood. But if you want to help save the albatross, look out for the logo of the Marine Stewardship Council on any seafood you buy. This organisation certifies responsible fisheries, with bird-friendliness one of its criteria.

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