Wandering albatross, two birds displaying, Bird Island, South Georgia

Spotlight on albatrosses

  • 43% grey-headed albatross decline
  • Night setting in partnership with Global Fishing Watch
  • 18 months amount of time longline vessels at sea
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Under threat

Stephanie Winnard explains how we’re forming a global partnership to save albatrosses.

Albatrosses are some of the most threatened groups of birds in the world, and South Georgia’s species are experiencing some of the steepest declines. 

Despite work that reduced albatross bycatch within South Georgia’s waters to near-zero by the early 2000s, counts in 2014/15 found declines of 43% (grey-headed), 18% (wandering), and 19% (black-browed) over the previous 11 years.

Thinking globally

In 2017, South Georgia’s Albatross Conservation Action Plans identified the largest risk to these populations as being killed as bycatch in fisheries outside South Georgia’s waters, and a project run by the RSPB and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), on behalf of the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI), identified Japanese and Taiwanese tuna fleets as posing the greatest threat. Mitigating this threat is a stated high priority for GSGSSI. 

Regulations in place across all five of the world’s tuna commissions require longline vessels to use seabird bycatch mitigation measures, but low compliance monitoring and poor educational outreach has meant limited implementation in many countries. Japan’s bycatch data indicate high levels of albatross bycatch, at rates undiminished from the late 1990s.

Black browed albatross Thalassarche melanophrys, chick at West Point Island, Falklands.

Getting fishing fleets onboard

Together with BirdLife International, local BirdLife partners and BAS, the RSPB has formed a three-point plan that will work to combat bycatch. This project will run from this year until 2020. 

Phase one is now underway; we’ll focus on phases two and three in subsequent issues. As albatrosses only feed during the day, setting lines at night is by far the best way to ensure that they don’t get caught in fishing vessel lines. 

But how do we ensure this is being adopted by all vessels? Longline fishing vessels can be at sea for 18 months at a time, and levels of observer coverage is low, which decreases how much influence governments are able to have on their fleets. But we believe that purchasing companies, together with more independent compliance data, can play a key role in encouraging vessels to comply with regulations. 

To further our understanding of night setting compliance, we are working with Global Fishing Watch (GFW) to do the first-ever analysis to see if it is possible to detect if longline vessels are setting at night using vessel positioning data received by satellite. The results will then be compared to the levels of night setting self-reported by countries to the tuna commissions.

Combating albatross bycatch: our three-point plan

Phase 1: Monitor the uptake of night setting (setting fishing lines at night), in collaboration with Global Fishing Watch. 

Phase 2: Engage with Japanese tuna purchasing companies, encouraging them to commit to only buying tuna from vessels compliant with seabird bycatch mitigation rules. 

Phase 3: Send a camera to Bird Island, South Georgia, to follow the life of some albatrosses. Create stories about a few key individuals to engage hearts and minds, framing specific albatross characters to create a stronger connection.

Reality TV

To get people inspired about protecting albatrosses, the project will be deploying a camera to follow some individual albatrosses on South Georgia. The web camera is specially designed to work in remote and extremely cold environments, and will be deployed in November 2018, when the birds begin mating and are starting to lay eggs.

You will be able to watch a live stream of the albatrosses for many months. The regularly-updated posts and videos will also be translated into Japanese and Mandarin.

Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophrys, in flight Southern Ocean nr South Georgia

Can you go further for nature?