Government urged to save threatened 'British' albatrosses breeding on South Atlantic islands

"The fishermen love the birds," says Meidad Goren, an ornithologist who has spent recent months travelling with vessels off South Africa in search of tuna and swordfish bound for the world's restaurant tables.

"They often come on board and they give them nicknames. If they see a certain bird they know it might mean there is good fishing there," he says.

But, though the albatrosses of the South Atlantic are regarded as fellow travellers in this wild and remote corner of the world, the actions of the fishermen are threatening their very survival.

Numbers of the seabird are declining so fast, caused primarily by the encroaching international fishing fleets, that many species could soon be extinct. Evidence suggests 19 of the 21 species are in serious decline. Thousands are killed every year when they try to feed on baited hooks trailed on long-lines behind the boats. As the lines, which can be up to 80 miles long, slowly sink, the feeding birds are pulled below the water and drowned.

For British bird-lovers, the plight of the albatross might appear a distant if tragic problem, but it is in fact one whose solution is very much closer to home. For a third of the world's 1.7 million breeding pairs nest in the UK overseas territories of the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and Tristan da Cunha. A new report by international wildlife groups has called on the British Government to act urgently to save the majestic giants of the southern oceans which travel thousands of miles each year in order to breed on UK soil.

Sir David Attenborough, vice- president of Falklands Conservation which co-authored the report, has lent his support to the campaign. "The chance of an individual albatross surviving to old age now seems as remote as the ability of many albatross species to exist beyond the end of this century," he said.

The rate of loss is causing mounting concern. A recent meeting between international conservationists and government agencies in the Falklands produced 118 recommendations, among them clamping down on pirate fleets that fish the waters illegally. Such is their impact that some species, such as the black-browed albatross, are disappearing at the rate of 18 breeding pairs a day and have been doing so for the past 10 years.

Atlantic yellow-nosed and Tristan albatrosses are declining at 1 per cent a year and breed only on the Tristan da Cunha islands, while 59 per cent of the world's pairs of sooty albatross and 58 per cent of the world's pairs of grey-headed albatross breed on UK overseas territories. They are being lost at the rate of 2 and 3 per cent a year.

The RSPB is looking to spend £2m over the next five years to safeguard the birds. It hopes to double the number of people, like Mr Goren, whom it employs to collect data and train fishermen to help save the albatross.

The solutions are heartbreakingly simple and inexpensive, he explains.

"If we can persuade the boats to trail a bird-scaring line behind them when they are fishing we can reduce the number of deaths by 90 per cent. They are happy to help and they are happy to learn. We have to push them a little bit but we can show them it is not that hard. If it doesn't slow or stop their fishing then most are happy to help and learn," he explained.

Environmentalists want the British Government to work for closer regulation and management of fisheries through international co-operation with the countries whose fleets work the albatross territories of the South Atlantic. These include Brazil, Namibia and Korea as well as South Africa. But South Africa is making good progress towards helping the albatross, said Mr Goren. Fishermen are required to carry a bird-scaring line in order to meet the conditions for their permit although they need not actually use it.

But the good news is that trawlers, which account for the loss of an estimated 18,000 seabirds a year, including many albatrosses, have been required to use them since July. But, for conservationists like Grahame Madge of the RSPB, the choice is simple if stark. "These birds are as British as if they were nesting off the cliffs at Dover. No one would stand by and watch them being slaughtered there. Why should we tolerate it just because it is happening thousands of miles away in the South Atlantic?"