There are 22 species of albatross in the world. As well as being the largest flying birds on the planet, they are incredibly long-lived and form long pair bonds, with some of the oldest known pairs breeding into their 60’s!
Albatrosses spend most of their life soaring over the oceans. Inevitably, this lifestyle brings them into contact with fishing vessels like long liners, which tow large nets through the water and discard fish refuse overboard as they go. This bounty of food attracts albatrosses in search of a free meal.
Sadly, for many this is the last meal they’ll have. Albatrosses get caught on fishing boat hooks whilst trying to retrieve the bait or dragged under water by trawl cables. By the early 2000’s in part due to these accidents, albatrosses had become the most threatened family of birds in the world.
To tackle this problem, the RSPB and BirdLife International, launched the Save the Albatross campaign in 2000. Their aim was to get regulations in place on the high seas and work directly with fishermen in South America and southern Africa to reverse the fate of these incredible seabirds.
Fisherman are coming to the albatrosses’ rescue. Simple interventions like attaching bird scaring lines made from brightly coloured streamers have been extremely effective. These scarecrows at-sea keep the birds safely away from potentially lethal fishing gear. In South Georgia, fishing fleets using bird scaring lines were able to significantly reduce their seabird bycatch mortality by over 99% in just four years. Other solutions have been to fish at night when albatrosses are less active, add weight to the hooks so they sink faster and refrain from fishing around albatross breeding sites. With similar measures, other bycatch reduction success stories are emerging in Australia and Hawaii.
While promising progress, other albatross species are still at risk of becoming fishing bycatch. What works in one country, doesn’t necessarily work in another. For example, in Brazil, fisherman discovered that the use of big poles – successfully used elsewhere – for hanging the bird streamer lines were ripped off vessels by the rough oceans. In South Africa and Argentina, the currents tangled the bird streamer lines in the vessel propellers. Determined to find feasible options, the RSPB and Birdlife International worked closely with 10 fisheries to invent new tailor-made gear.
Almost 15 years down the line, these fishing fleets have reduced seabird bycatch by over 85%, while maintaining target catch numbers – a win-win for both fisherman and albatrosses! The Albatross Task Force estimates that thousands of seabird deaths have been prevented each year.
Although there is still more work to be done to keep albatrosses safe at sea, their future is looking brighter. When the Save the Albatross campaign started, 19 of the 22 albatross species were on the IUCN Red List. Now it is only 15 of the 22 species.
Due to their slow breeding behaviour, it will take many years until populations recover, but what must be done to keep albatrosses safe is now known. The strong evidence in the campaign’s action, in reducing the bycatch rate so drastically, highlights an optimistic future for the albatross.
The Albatross Task Force
The Albatross Task Force is an international team of seabird bycatch mitigation experts led by the RSPB and BirdLife International – is on a mission to reduce seabird bycatch by 80% in some of the deadliest fisheries for albatrosses.
Find out more on the Albatross Task Force website.