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

The remarkable albatross

Many people reading this will never have seen an albatross. Most of them live in the southern hemisphere, and they spend their lives out at sea, travelling thousands of miles each year in the search for food, coming to land only to breed.

 

The 19th of June this year will be the first ever World Albatross Day. So why do these remote and elusive birds need their own special day?

Record breakers

To start with, albatrosses are remarkable.

The oldest known living bird in the wild is an albatross, a Laysan albatross called Wisdom. She was tagged on Midway Atoll in 1956 when already an adult, so she’s at least 69 years old. But she’s still breeding and fledged a chick just last year.

Another record albatrosses hold is that they have the largest wingspan of any bird. The wandering albatross can have a wingspan of over 11 feet, and to give you a comparison, our largest bird, the white-tailed eagle, has a wingspan of just 8 feet. Ungainly on land, wandering albatrosses are masters of the air and a single wingbeat is enough to keep them aloft for hours without another flap.

Under threat

Sadly, these impressive traits didn’t prevent the albatross from becoming the most threatened group of seabirds in the world. In 2000, 19 of the 22 global species of albatross were classed as threatened on the IUCN Red List.

The biggest danger they face is from commercial fishing, particularly longline fishing. This is where boats trail lines of baited hooks instead of nets, some of them stretching an incredible 80 miles! Fish heads and guts thrown overboard by crews processing their catch often attract hundreds of seabirds, and each baited hook can represent an irresistible meal for a hungry albatross. As they try to peck the tasty bait off the hooks, many become caught and drown.

The numbers dying this way are staggering and estimates suggests that one albatross is drowned on a longline hook every 5 minutes. The Namibian longline fleet alone is thought to have been killing up to 20,000 seabirds per year, and the global fishing industry has been slaughtering hundreds of thousands of birds for decades.

Black-browed albatross - Global seabird appeal gallery

Cause for hope

In 2000, the RSPB and BirdLife International launched the Save the Albatross campaign. Its goal was to tackle the issue of albatross deaths through a combination of regulations, groundwork, research and education. The solutions to preventing albatross deaths in fisheries are both simple and inexpensive. Bird scaring lines – with long colourful streamers acting like oceanic scarecrows – keep foraging birds away from potentially fatal baited hooks and other dangerous fishing gear. Setting lines at night when albatrosses are less active also helps, as does adding weights to the hooks to make them sink out of the birds’ reach more quickly.

Sometimes these measures have to be tailored to suit specific conditions, but they’ve proved remarkably effective. In Namibia, one of the world’s deadliest fisheries, seabird deaths have been reduced by 98% since the introduction of regulations requiring the use of bird-scaring lines. In the South African Hake fishery, albatross bycatch has now been reduced by 95% and sustained for over ten years.

Regulations that require seabird-friendly fishing practices are now in place for all of the target fleets with substantial albatross bycatch issues, both within national jurisdictions, and on the High Seas. There’s still work to do, but vessels following the guidance are saving tens of thousands of seabirds from dying a needless death each year. So much so that the number of albatross species threatened with extinction has now dropped from 19 to 15.  

Sooty albatross and chick

World Albatross Day

If our conservation work has been so successful, why do albatrosses still need their own special day?

Well, the threats from fisheries haven’t all been eradicated. Albatrosses face other threats too, like invasive mice at their breeding sites. Fifteen albatross species still face the threat of extinction, so raising awareness of the issues they face and celebrating these amazing birds is still worthwhile.

But more than that, World Albatross Day is about celebrating what can be achieved for nature when people work together. The conservation threats to albatrosses are truly global, but the work to help them is also global. Rory Crawford, Bycatch Programme Manager, sums it up well:

“Given their extensive ranges and the myriad threats they face, if we can succeed in turning the tide for albatrosses, then there’s hope we can sort out more of the planet’s problems.  World Albatross Day is a chance to bring some attention to these birds as a symbol of that hope.”