Saving the Albatross

Credits: © Tony Palliser

This Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) is one of 21 albatross species which are threatened with extinction (compared to just three in 1996).

With a wingspan of nearly 3.6 metres (12 feet), this majestic bird can reach a speed of 160 kilometres per hour (100mph). Research has also found that it achieves distances of over 1,000 km each day (621 miles) over open water. The majority of albatross species, found in the Southern Ocean and the Pacific, are undergoing long-term declines, with significant numbers being drowned after being caught accidentally on baited hooks set by longline fisheries - especially those targeting Southern Bluefin Tuna and Patagonian Toothfish. During line setting, longliners set a single line up to 130 km long behind the boat. Attached to it are literally thousands of baited hooks. The world's longline fleets set an estimated 1 billion hooks annually. Once set, the hooks are too deep for the birds to reach. Seabirds scavenging behind these boats try to eat the bait from the hooks. Some birds swallow the hooks and are dragged underwater and drown as the baited lines sink.

More than 300,000 seabirds are killed in this way each year. As a direct consequence, 26 species of seabird, including 21 species of albatrosses and several petrel, are in danger of extinction. Simple methods for reducing this toll are available, including Tori poles (streamers that scare the birds from the sinking baits), setting lines at night, and using weighted hooks so that fishing lines sink more quickly. 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 at risk. Two important international agreements - The FAO-International Plan of Action and the legally binding Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) - have been drawn up to tackle the problem. The treaty came into force in February 2004.

Related links