Bad News for the Albatross

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The decline of the wandering albatross population on South Georgia Island epitomizes the worldwide plight of this symbolic seabird.Dave Pons

The already-tenuous future of the albatross has suffered another blow with the recent discovery of another drastic decline in population of the wandering albatross on South Georgia Island.

For the past 30 years, scientists have been monitoring the population of albatross on Bird Island, which lies off the northwest tip of South Georgia. In January of this year, they counted 779 nests, which amounts to about 802 pairs of breeding birds. That represents a decline of 49 pairs from the 2006 season and 125 pairs from 2005.

Albatross inhabit all of the world's oceans except for the Arctic, though 17 of the 21 species are found only in the South Atlantic, and 19 of those 21 species are in serious danger of extinction.

Albatross only give birth to one chick at a time, and some species reproduce only every other season. Additionally, albatross mate for life. If a partner dies, it could take years to find a replacement, if at all. In short, albatross simply can't reproduce fast enough to counteract their rapidly declining population.

According to Dr. Richard Phillips of the British Antarctic Survey, analysis of the long-term data collected from Bird Island suggests that hooks attached to bait used in long-line fishing are almost certainly the root cause for the consistent decline in albatross. According to the organization Save the Albatross, the fishhooks kill one hundred thousand albatross each year-about one every five minutes. Pirate fishing-illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing-is to blame for about one-third of albatross deaths.

A number of organizations are rallying to find a solution to this problem. BirdLife International and the British Antarctic Survey plan to assess the impact of the International Committee for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna on seabirds, and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization will model the fishing industry's total bycatch and its impact on the albatross.

Save the Albatross is also working on the birds' behalf, (Read details in CW's July "Shoreline," Page 20) and recently joined forces with Volvo Ocean Race organizers, who are encouraging racers to record albatross sightings and collect other data.

Renowned solo circumnavigator Dame Ellen MacArthur is also involved. BBC just recently aired the documentary "Ellen and the Albatross," which highlights MacArthur's two-week visit to South Georgia Island, where she helped naturalist Sally Pancet study the wandering albatross.

MacArthur recalls the albatross as a constant companion on her voyages in the South Atlantic, especially in the Roaring 40s. The bird is a fitting symbol for a lone sailor, as it can fly 1,000 miles in one day and remain at sea for 10 years without ever touching land.

For more information on Save the Albatross, click here; to read the South George Island Newsletter story about the albatross, click here.