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UK finally signs up to save albatross from deadly fishing lines

Britain has belatedly joined an international move to save one of the world's most magnificent birds, after a bitter battle in Whitehall.

Elliot Morley, the Environment minister, will today tell an international birds conference in Edinburgh that Britain will ratify a treaty to protect albatrosses, which are increasingly endangered by fishing methods intended to save dolphins. Some 100,000 of the birds - immortalised in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" - are killed every year by being impaled on the hooks of 80-mile long fishing lines.

Britain was at the forefront of the negotiations to draw up the treaty and was one of the first countries to sign it, but environment ministers have been frustrated and embarrassed by foot-dragging and obstruction from the Foreign Office in formally joining up to it.

The result is a triumph for Mr Morley, who is a keen birdwatcher, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has campaigned for Britain to accede to the treaty. Britain's participation is particularly important because its dependent territories in the South Atlantic, such as South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, are important breeding areas for the birds.

Albatrosses have been increasingly endangered by the use of the fishing lines which have temptingly baited hooks every few yards along their length and are mainly used to catch tuna and Patagonian toothfish, largely for Far Eastern markets. The birds snatch the bait as the lines are played out and are dragged under the sea and drowned when their bills are caught on the hooks.

Use of the lines increased in response to a campaign to ban fishing with vast drift nets which were trapping dolphins, but are now threatening the survival of the albatrosses. All 21 species of the bird face extinction, as well as petrels and many other kinds of seabird.

The birds are also endangered by the destruction of their breeding and feeding areas, and by pollution. The treaty will enforce measures to reduce the danger from the lines and protect their habitats. Brightly coloured, flapping streamers can be attached to the lines to scare off the birds. They can be weighted to make them sink faster.

Foreign Office officials held up Britain's participation by insisting that the Government could not join up without the agreement of its dependent territories and then dragged their feet about getting the territories to agree.

But after Mr Morley's intervention all except Tristan Da Cunha have accepted the treaty. The island is essential because it is the most important albatross habitat of all in Britain's territories, but the Government and campaigners said it will shortly join. Mr Morley said: "Our aim must be to make real changes to the fortunes of these amazing birds, which connect people across oceans and capture the poetic imagination."