Masters of the Wind and Sea—the Albatrosses

by David S. Wilcove
July 15, 2009
albatross Albatross. Photo by Caleb Slemmons via Birdshare.
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Between the southern tip of South America and Antarctica lie several hundred miles of open sea known as the Drake Passage. It’s where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans meet, creating a vast, open funnel through which the southern winds roar. For centuries, travelers have dreaded the prospect of crossing the Drake Passage, with its gale-force winds and violent seas. Even now, in an era of large, comfortable ships with stabilizers and state-of-the-art navigation equipment, the days spent traversing the Drake Passage are usually the low point of any trip to Antarctica, providing many passengers with indelible memories of seasickness. But for bird watchers, the Drake Passage is well worth the misery. Its choppy gray waters sustain an abundance of krill, fish, and squid, which, in turn, attracts a diverse array of seabirds.

When I had the great good fortune to visit Antarctica last December, I vowed to spend as much time as possible looking for birds during our journey through the Drake Passage. Fortunately, the various patches and pills I used to ward off seasickness proved reasonably effective, and I was able to spend many hours on deck, scanning the seas. The birds did not disappoint me. Both Hall’s and Antarctic giant petrels—big, heavy-set petrels that reminded me of football players—followed the wake of our ship; Southern Fulmars and Sooty Shearwaters cruised by on stiff, narrow wings; and prions, all but impossible to identify to species under field conditions, taunted me by the dozens.

But the stars of the show were indisputably the albatrosses. Masters of the wind and sea, they would appear as dots on the far horizon, head toward our ship for a brief inspection, and then disappear back across the horizon, with scarcely a flap of their long, narrow wings. Hundreds of Black-browed Albatrosses escorted us through the Drake Passage in this fashion, along with lesser numbers of Gray-headed and Light-mantled albatrosses.

Each time a Black-browed Albatross sailed close to the ship, I marveled at its seven-foot wingspan. Yet my bird book contemptuously referred to the black-browed as one of the “medium to small albatrosses.” What would it be like, I wondered, to see one of the so-called “great albatrosses?” On the second day of our voyage, John Lamoreux, an ecologist with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, pointed to a bird on the horizon. Through our binoculars, we could tell it was an albatross—a big albatross—but it wasn’t until the bird flew past a black-browed that we realized just how big it was. This bird, now identifiable as a Royal Albatross, made the black-browed look like a runt, a pipsqueak, a Boeing 707 next to a 747. As it soared over the waves and out of sight, I understood the sentiment of the great ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy, who, after an ocean voyage, wrote, “I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the albatross.”

Sadly, those who wish to belong to Murphy’s “higher cult of mortals” are finding it increasingly hard to do so. The world’s albatrosses are becoming endangered at a faster rate than any other group of birds: faster than parrots, birds of prey, waterbirds, or shorebirds. According to BirdLife International, which maintains the official “Red List” of imperiled birds, all 22 of the world’s albatross species are in trouble: four are critically endangered, six are endangered, eight are vulnerable, and four are near-threatened. Yet just 15 years ago, only three species were considered to be in trouble. What happened?

The answer lies primarily in the growing worldwide demand for seafood, combined with the ruthlessly efficient methods now used to catch fish. In particular, the growth of the world’s long-line fisheries, which capture tuna, swordfish, cod, halibut, Chilean sea bass, and other predatory fish, has been an unmitigated disaster for albatrosses and other seabirds. As the newly baited hooks are tossed into the water, seabirds grab at the bait, hook themselves, get dragged underwater, and drown. In today’s large-scale, industrialized fishing operations, a single long-line coming off one boat can be 60 miles in length and contain upwards of 30,000 hooks. And thousands of long-line fishing vessels are scouring the world’s oceans. By one estimate, the world’s long-line vessels set about a billion hooks each year, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of seabirds.

Albatrosses take several years to reach sexual maturity, and they fledge only one chick every other year. This combination of slow maturation and low fecundity makes their populations especially vulnerable to the loss of adult and sub-adult birds. Moreover, the loss of a parent can result in starvation for the chick left behind. Albatrosses face plenty of other dangers, including introduced predators on their breeding grounds and the accidental ingestion of plastic debris, but mortality caused by fishing operations is by far the most serious threat.

Yet these accidental deaths (“bycatch” in the parlance of fisheries managers) are, in principle at least, easily solved. Fishing vessels can dramatically reduce or even eliminate seabird deaths by taking any of several steps. They can place a line of brightly colored, flapping ribbons (called tori lines) over the spot where the baited hooks enter the water. The ribbons frighten seabirds away from the bait. Fishers can also place heavier weights on their lines, causing the hooks to sink faster. Once the hooks are well underwater, seabirds can no longer reach the bait. They can also set their hooks at night, when most seabirds are inactive, or they can dye the bait blue, which renders it less visible to the birds. And finally, fishing boats can stop discarding their waste at the same time they are putting out baited hooks; the waste acts like chum, attracting seabirds at the time when they are most likely to get hooked.

None of these steps is prohibitively difficult or expensive. So why are seabirds still dying due to fishing operations? The answer, I believe, has to do with the international dimension of the problem combined with cultural, economic, and educational barriers to changing the behavior of fishers.

By attaching state-of-the-art satellite transmitters to albatrosses and shearwaters, scientists have documented that some seabirds travel thousands of miles over the course of a year. A single albatross may pass through a dozen sovereign nations or Exclusive Economic Zones in that time. Therefore, unless all of the countries with major fishing fleets in the ranges of these birds adopt these safety measures, seabirds will continue to die.

Fortunately, in a number of countries, fishers and government agencies have taken steps to reduce seabird mortality. Fishing fleets in

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Alaska, for example, are now required by the federal government to use tori lines, a step that has resulted in an 80 percent reduction in the accidental deaths of Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses. And to its credit, the Fishing Vessel Owners Association, which represents captains involved in the halibut and sablefish fisheries along the West Coast, has instructed its members to use tori lines in Washington, Oregon, and California as well. For fishing fleets in international waters, a number of multinational agreements have been developed to reduce seabird bycatch, including the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (enacted in 1992) and the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (which the United States supports but has yet to sign).

Although installing tori lines or heavier sinkers is not terribly expensive, the cost may be a problem for cash-strapped fishers in developing countries. Moreover, even when fishers are able to take these steps, they are likely to need guidance in installing and operating the tori lines or adjusting their sinkers or dyeing their bait. Thus, one of the most promising developments in the fight to save seabirds has been the creation of an Albatross Task Force by BirdLife International and Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). The task force consists of a small team of instructors who provide technical support and equipment to fishers in bycatch “hotspots” around the world. It began in 2006 in South Africa and has subsequently expanded to six other countries: Namibia, Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, and Chile. By working cooperatively with fishers, the task force appears to be making real progress; according to an RSPB news release, albatross mortality in South African waters has dropped by 85 percent since the task force began its work.

Thus, there is every reason to believe we can stop the slaughter of albatrosses and other seabirds by the world’s fishing fleets. But whether we will muster the willpower and resources to do so remains an open question. From my vantage point on the deck of the ship, the albatrosses seemed all but indestructible as they glided effortlessly over the waves of the Drake Passage. It was hard to accept that they could be destroyed by something as mundane as a chunk of bait on a fishhook.