Who will save the albatross?

Massacred by commercial fishing, our most magical and magnificent birds now face extinction. As Ellen McArthur launches a campaign to save them, Michael McCarthy explains what makes the glorious albatross the king of the skies
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The Independent Online

It stirs the imagination more than any other bird. Eagles may be majestic, falcons may be dashing and kingfishers may be exquisite, but nothing quite sparks our sense of wonder like the albatross.

It stirs the imagination more than any other bird. Eagles may be majestic, falcons may be dashing and kingfishers may be exquisite, but nothing quite sparks our sense of wonder like the albatross.

Even for those of us who have never seen one, and that's most of us, the great long-winged ocean wanderer floats through our subconscious as an icon of wildness and freedom. There is more: an air of deep mystery about it, as it emerges from nowhere, in the remotest corner of the sea, effortlessly follows your ship for hour upon hour, and disappears once again like a phantom. Where's it gone, when there isn't anywhere to go to?

Sailors used to think albatrosses were the souls of drowned men. Samuel Taylor Coleridge chiselled that superstitious awe into literary stone two hundred years ago in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, the poem which fixed forever the mysterious, semi-magical nature of the bird in the British mind. Shoot an albatross like the mariner did, you read, and there will be terrible consequences.

No doubt about it, albatrosses are wondrous, albatrosses are utterly charismatic, albatrosses are very special creatures indeed. And they are being slaughtered. In a massacre of immense proportions, the birds are being killed in tens of thousands all across the Southern Ocean where most of them make their home. In less than 20 years, 19 of the 21 albatross species have gone from healthy populations to facing extinction.

The cause is a fishing method which has been used for centuries by native peoples, such as the Inuit of Greenland, without wrecking the environment, but which is suddenly being employed on a vast industrial scale, with catastrophic results.

Long-lining involves trailing out a line behind the fishing boat, set with many baited hooks. The lines can be eighty miles long, and on some lines the hooks can number ten thousand; and thousands of boats are doing it. It is now believed that across the oceans of the world, no less than a billion long-line hooks are baited every year. One billion tempting traps for seabirds, which swoop down to the pieces of squid or other bait still showing on or near the surface, are caught by the hook in the beak or throat, dragged under, and drowned.

BirdLife International, the bird conservation charity which is leading the fight to save the albatross with its British partner the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), estimates that 400,000 seabirds are now killed by long-lining every year, with albatrosses making up about 100,000 of the total.

Their populations simply cannot withstand it. The conservation status of two species, the Amsterdam and the Chatham albatrosses, is now officially listed as critically endangered.

But another 17 species are well on the slippery slope to disappearance, including the black-browed albatross, the species that just occasionally makes it to Britain, and the wandering albatross, the biggest of them all, with a scarcely-believable wingspan of more than three metres - nearly 12 feet.

The scale and speed of the plunge in numbers has been astonishing. In the Falkland Islands, between 1995 and 2000, 87,000 pairs of black-browed albatrosses disappeared from their traditional breeding grounds.

Euan Dunn, the RSPB's head of marine policy, is one of the world's leading experts on albatross conservation, and he points to a triple conjunction of developments in the global fishing industry. Firstly, in the 1980s, in a rare burst of environmental consciousness, the United Nations banned giant drift nets as a fishing method.

So fishing fleets, seeking always to maximise their take, switched to long-lining in the late 80s on a large scale. Secondly, Dr Dunn said, more and more inshore fishing waters around the world became exhausted, so at the same time many more fishing boats moved out into the deep ocean. And thirdly, there was the discovery of a new, very commercial Southern Ocean fish species, the Patagonian toothfish, which led to a veritable gold rush. The sudden, frenzied upsurge in long-line pursuit of species like the toothfish, and especially of even more valuable species like the bluefin tuna, started the albatross slaughter. But they were the birds least equipped to stand it.

Some bird species which have a high annual death rate, such as blue tits, make up for their loss in numbers by laying as many as fourteen eggs at a time. Albatrosses, by contrast, which have few natural enemies and are very long-lived - an albatross has been recorded living 61 years, and it is thought they may live as long as 80 - and they do not start breeding until they are about ten years old, and then they have a single chick, every two years.

Obviously, such a way of going about things is anything but suitable for making up lost numbers fast. Another difficulty is that albatrosses are monogamous, mating for life, and if they lose their mate it may take them five years to find another. "With this extremely slow reproductive rate, they simply can't compensate for the massive losses long line fishing is inflicting," Dr Dunn said.

However, the albatross in its hour of need is not without friends, and powerful friends at that. Among the many people who have been kept company by albatrosses in the loneliest parts of the oceans are record-breaking round-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur, the Atlantic rower John Ridgway, who last year sailed around the world with his wife to publicise the threat, and the Prince of Wales, who watched and wondered at albatrosses during his time in the Royal Navy. Last night all were present at a London dinner organised by the RSPB to raise funds for albatross conservation.

In recent years the Prince has become a champion of the albatross, speaking out about the threat on numerous occasions. The dinner was in support of the latest initiative from the Save the Albatross Campaign that the RSPB and BirdLife International are running. It is called Operation Ocean Task Force and it aims to appoint a team of experts to train fishermen around the world to prevent seabird deaths.

For there are simple and inexpensive measures that can be taken, with remarkably successful results. They include streamers attached to the long-line to scare the birds away, weighting the lines to make them sink faster, and setting the baits at night when the birds will not see them. The conservationists think such a task force is necessary because although an international treaty to protect the albatross was signed last year (ACAP - the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels), and some countries such as Britain have already ratified it, many other fishing nations have not. And action is needed now.

"If we fail to save the albatross, it means that we will have failed to manage the oceans, and these are our greatest global commons," Euan Dunn said.

"They are now becoming an increasing source of food security around the world - people are more and more turning to the oceans to find the protein they need. Unless we can manage them and steward them in a sustainable way, our own worth as a species is greatly diminished."

The albatross: a lesson from literature?

Coleridge, as everyone knows, was one of the great Romantic poets; but what they may not know is that he was also an environmental visionary. In his best known work, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, published in its present form in 1817, we are told the story of an albatross, which follows a ship sent off course in bad weather, only to be shot by the ancient mariner of the title with a crossbow.

It becomes clear that the mariner's random act has brought a terrible evil upon the ship.

The vessel is stuck in the doldrums, and the men start to thirst. When a ship is seen, sailing towards them even though there is not a breath of wind, it turns out to be a ghost ship. Death silently takes every sailor on the ancient mariner's ship, except the mariner himself. He alone will live on, to expiate his sin against Mother Nature.

Now consider the plight of the albatross in 2005.

More than 100,000 of these massive birds are killed every year by long-line fishing in the Southern Ocean, and environmentalists fear that some of the 21 types of albatross will become extinct soon if this practice continues unabated. The long-lines, up to 80 miles of hooks, are designed to catch swordfish and tuna, but the albatross, swooping to catch fish near the ocean surface, has become their unintended victim.

Consider, too, the simultaneous discovery that Swedish fishermen in the Baltic are suffering from low sperm counts and sperm motility, due to anxiety, depression, and the large numbers of fatty fish they eat. It would be foolish to directly attribute a decline in fishermen's ability to reproduce with the concurrent decline in albatross numbers, but there are some unnerving parallels between the plight of Coleridge's doomed ship and the plight of today's Swedish sailors.

Just as the ancient mariner's ship languishes, it is, pointedly, a lack of motility which is affecting our Baltic seafarers. The mariner's encounter with the female figure of 'Life in Death', too, carries heavily sexual Gothic overtones. His wish, in particular, that 'I too could die' carries the Shakespearian resonances of 'death' as 'orgasm' with it. And the less said about the Freudian resonances of the mariner killing the virginal white bird with his crossbow the better.

Spurious? Possibly. But, environmental visionary or not, Coleridge understood the balance that must be struck with the world around us. And the Ancient Mariner warns us - meddle with nature, and pretty soon it will meddle with you.

Ed Caesar

* Special prints of albatrosses at sea can be bought in support of Operation Ocean Task Force via the RSPB's website at www.rspb.org.uk/international/albatross.