Vanishing albatrosses helped with ‘bycatch’ abatement

Birders in search of albatrosses see fewer of them these days, but the albatross scarcity may abate soon thanks to changes in the ways international fishing boats use hooks and nets.

Albatrosses, shearwaters, gulls and many other seabirds seek out areas of oceans where upwellings and currents concentrate prey fish at the surface. Unfortunately, longline fishing fleets harvest in these same waters and their boats have killed millions of albatrosses and other large seabirds.

By Rex Graham

Actually, 17 out of 22 species of albatross are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International, due to the needless euphemistically described “incidental bycatch” by these fishing fleets. Petrels, shearwaters and other seabird species are also killed. The vanishing albatrosses and other seabirds has been a disappointment to birders taking birding cruises.

The Shy Albatross is one of the many vanishing albatrosses that follow fishing boats. (Glen Fergus) topbirdingtours.com

The Shy Albatross is one of the many vanishing albatrosses that follow fishing boats. (Glen Fergus)

Vanishing Albatrosses and Birding Cruises

Annually, an estimated 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses, seize baited hooks and are drowned or struck by trawl cables and dragged under water. Since the problem was identified in the 1990s, a number of simple, cheap and effective mitigation measures have been developed which, once implemented, dramatically reduce the senseless slaughter of seabirds, sea turtles and other wildlife.

Nations with fishing fleets have been slow to adopt seabird-safe techniques. The worst bycatch offenders have been the Spanish hake fleet in the Gran Sol area northwest of Spain, the Japanese pelagic tuna fleet in the North Pacific, the Namibian hake fleet and the Nordic demersal fleets.

Some countries and fleets are taking steps, sometimes voluntarily, that are recommended by the Albatross Task Force (ATF), an international team of bycatch mitigation instructors:

  • About 50 percent of the Santos and Itajai fleetsare voluntarily using mitigation measures.
  • South Africa reduced albatross mortality by 90 percent in its hake trawl fishery.
  • The ATF has provided extensive training to fisheries in Chile, Uraguay and Namibia.
The White-capped Albatross, like all vanishing albatrosses, can't reach baited hooks when weights added to fishing sets sinks the hooks beyond the birds’ reach. (Ron Knight) topbirdingtours.com

The White-capped Albatross, like all vanishing albatrosses, can’t reach baited hooks when weights added to fishing sets sinks the hooks beyond the birds’ reach. (Ron Knight)

Unsustainable Fishing Hurts Vanishing Albatrosses

International fishing fleets equipped with highly effective fishing technology are depleting the oceans’ fish. For example, fish aggregating devices (FADs) such as purse seine nets harvest all species of fish – juveniles and adults – in highly productive areas. FADs prevent sustainable fisheries from prospering.

Greenpeace reported that “baby” skipjack, yellowfin and bigeye tuna are regularly unloaded at the General Santos fish port in the Philippines. The tuna are able to reproduce only after they reach 1 meter in length, but the unsustainable harvesting of juveniles prevents the fish from reproducing.

Tropical seabirds, ofraging long distances, rely on tuna to drive small prey fish to the surface, which makes them available to seabirds. Loss of these fish predators reduces prey availability, contributing to seabird declines.

The Black-footed Albatross, like most vanishing albatrosses, fly long distances follow tuna and other predatory fish as they drive small prey fish to the surface. (James Lloyd Place) topbirdingtours.com

The Black-footed Albatross, like most vanishing albatrosses, fly long distances follow tuna and other predatory fish as they drive small prey fish to the surface. (James Lloyd Place)

Aquaculture Could Help Vanishing Albatrosses

Aquaculture could save many threatened and endangered bird and fish species from extinction. Senior government aquaculture and fisheries officials from 16 countries in the region, along with representatives of specialized organizations, the private sector and international funding agencies have agreed a regional strategy and action plan for the sustainable intensification of aquaculture for Asia and the Pacific, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (

The Laysan Albatross, the most depleted of the world’s vanishing albatrosses, seize baited hooks as they are placed in the water or retrieved by fishing vessels, day or night. (Dick Daniels) topbirdingtours.com

The Laysan Albatross, the most depleted of the world’s vanishing albatrosses, seize baited hooks as they are placed in the water or retrieved by fishing vessels, day or night. (Dick Daniels)