The Demise of the Albatross

I’ll never forget my first albatross sighting – a small, soaring form that came closer by the minute until it was tumbling through the wind like a jet fighter within metres of my head. I felt like a child on Christmas morning, and had to stop myself from doing a small squirm-dance with excitement.

For a bird nerd like myself, any species of albatross is a must-see. So when I read a report in Bird Conservation International that shows 17 of 22 albatross species are threatened with extinction, I was heart-broken. That’s an enormous 77% of albatross species that could be gone forever if nothing is done to protect them.

Light-Mantled Sooty Albatross (Left) & Southern Royal Albatross (Right) (Photos: Kimberley Collins)

It’s not just the Albatross (Diomedeiae) that are in danger. In actual fact, 26% of all 364 seabird species are globally threatened. When you compare that with an average of 12% for other groups, it’s no wonder ornithologists have set off the alarm bells. It made me wonder what force could be so destructive that it could cause these fantastic birds to decline in such large numbers.

I had a look around and the main causes of seabird decline are as follows:

Commercial Fishing:

The biggest threat to seabird populations is over-fishing. Most seabirds feed on fish and commercial fisheries remove such a large quantity of their daily meal that little is left to sustain seabird populations.

In the case of the Albatross, the greatest risk is that they will become hooked on long-line fishing equipment used to catch the food that we consume daily, such as tuna, swordfish, and snapper. Because albatross are attracted to offal they often go for baited hooks and once hooked, they will drown. Fishing vessels keep poor records of what is being caught and so there is limited information available on the number of birds killed annually, but a variety of research has been conducted (see 1, 2, 3, & 4*).

An example of an albatross that has become tangled in fishing line and drowned. (Photo: Projeto Tamar Brazil/Marine Photobank)

Egg thief - the black rat. (Photo: Arthur's Clip Art)

Introduced Pest Species:

Although a large number of New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands are now pest free, many global albatross species are affected by this threat. Because albatross nest on the ground, mammalian predators such as rats, stoats, and feral cats threaten the survival of eggs and juveniles.

The black rat is a major culprit, and is known to cause catastrophic declines in the number of seabirds on islands that it is introduced to.

Pollution:

Albatross spend most of their time at sea looking for food – eating squid and fish eggs that float on the surface of the water. They will often mistake plastic for food and ingest it, eventually starving to death with their stomach full of plastic.

Dropping rubbish on land doesn’t mean it’s going to stay there. More often than not it ends up in the ocean by way of storm drains. Up to a million seabirds are killed each year from eating plastic. The moral of the story? Put your rubbish in the bin! It’s as simple as that.

A victim of plastic - rubbish from the stomach of an albatross (Photo: Tim Zim)

So there we have it – three reasons a number of albatross species are globally threatened. But what can we do to prevent their untimely demise – take a look at the paper for more information!

* What a fantastic title for an academic paper!

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One thought on “The Demise of the Albatross

  1. Great post, Kim! I think you get the creative/scientific balance just right. Glad you found a copy of Wake of the Invercargauld. You should review it as a blog post!

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