Saving the dolphin dooms the albatross

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The Independent Online
INTERNATIONAL measures to save the dolphin are hastening the extinction of the world's most magnificent bird.

One in ten of the wandering albatrosses which glide at astonishing speed for thousands of miles over the Southern Ocean on their 10ft wingspans are killed every year by commercial fishing boats using long lines with tens of thousands of hooks.

Use of the lines - each up to 80 miles long, with a temptingly baited hook every few yards - has increased as a result of an international campaign to ban fishing with vast drift-nets that once used to trap and drown tens of thousands of dolphins a year.

As the slaughter of the dolphins has fallen, the demise of the albatross has accelerated. They seize the bait as the line is played out and are dragged under the waves as their bills are caught on hooks.

"This problem has escalated because of the international moratorium on drift-nets," said Euan Dunn, marine policy officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "The impact has shifted from dolphins to albatrosses."

And it is not just the world's biggest bird that is suffering. An international scientific conference in Tasmania concluded this month that at least seven other species of albatross were being affected by the lines, as well as petrels and shearwaters.

"What is coming through is how extremely widespread this problem is," Mr Dunn said. "It is in the Southern Ocean and the Pacific, the Indian Ocean and off the coasts of South America. Long lines are killing Blackfoot albatrosses off Hawaii and Cory's shearwaters off the Azores, and there is evidence that fulmars are being killed in the North Atlantic."

But it is the wandering albatross that is perhaps in the most trouble. The largest of all flying mammals, it has a body the size of a goose, but its wings stretch wide enough to span a modest living-room.

They ride the Roaring Forties, that river of rough air that storms around the largely land-free circle of ocean that surrounds Antarctica. They coast on the currents of air created by large waves and by the friction of the wind against the waves. These provide 98 per cent of the energy they need to fly - only 2 per cent of it comes from their muscles - and thus apparently effortlessly achieve speeds of 50-70 miles per hour. They may stay out of sight of land for a year at a time and they cover vast distances. One albatross fitted with a radio transmitter and tracked by satellite flew just under 10,000 miles in 30 days.

They mate for life but lead several lives; the partners meet up again every other year at the same nesting site on a remote Southern Ocean island, such as South Georgia in the South Atlantic, Campbell Island south of New Zealand, or one of the Crozet Islands in the far south of the Indian Ocean. The chick takes so long to mature that it is still there when the Antarctic winter falls, clinging to the nest with its claws in the blizzard and high winds until it is ready to make its own way into the watery world. If it survives this it may live as long as a human.

Killing an albatross - as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" reminds us - was long held by sailors to bring bad luck. Yet they often caught them on baited hooks for meat on long voyages. Their feathers were used for millinery, their bones for pipes, their feet for tobacco pouches. But with the disappearance of sailing ships, and changes of fashion for hats and smoking, their future seemed assured .

Scientists studying the wandering albatross at the one ocean site where they are known to congregate - an area of New South Wales - were the first to notice something was going wrong. Over the past decade, the numbers of albatrosses at the site plummeted, and it turned out that the long fishing lines - a grotesque escalation of the baited hooks once used by hungry sailors - were to blame.

The use of long lines has increased alarmingly. In 1955, the Tasmanian conference was told, Japanese ships catching tuna cast only 20,000 hooks a year into the waters off New Zealand. By 1987 this had risen to 100 million hooks annually. Studies show that the boats around New Zealand alone kill an average of five albatrosses a day. Graeme Parkes of the Marine Resources Assessment Group in London says he once counted seven drowned albatrosses impaled on just one stretch of a single line.

One study presented to the conference reported that on average, one black- browed albatross is killed for every 100 hooks deployed on long lines used for tuna fishing off Uruguay.

Another blames the long lines for a 50 per cent decline in southern giant petrels at Heard Island in the southern extremities of the Indian Ocean.

In theory this is a problem everyone wants to solve, for even the fishermen would sooner catch fish than albatrosses. Various solutions have been tried, such as attaching streamers to the back of the boat to scare away the birds or casting the hooks away from the ship's wake so they will sink faster. Norway has gone further, by adapting its boats to cast out the lines from under the stern, so the baited hooks never break the surface, whereas New Zealand wants a ban on long lines. But at its precipitous rate of decline, all this may come too late to save the wandering albatross from oblivion.