The albatross: flying high, again...

They are one of the earth’s most majestic creatures, but the fishing industry pushed them to the brink of extinction. Now a pioneering scheme in South Africa could save the albatross.

Kunal Dutta
Monday 23 February 2009 01:00

Ever since Samuel Taylor Coleridge first wrote of the fate endured by the ancient mariner who shot the albatross, the majestic bird has been a sight to behold, as well as a feared omen.

Yet literary significance – and a supersition that the bird represents the souls of lost sailors – has not been enough to curtail a fishing industry that is threatening albatrosses with extinction. Up to 100,000 birds a year are killed each year after being caught on the baited hooks of long-line fishing trawlers intended for tuna or swordfish.

Now a pioneering scheme, led by the RSPB and Birdlife International, could herald the beginning of a brighter future. Piloted in South African waters, the project sees fishermen shown a number of simple measures to ward birds away from the fishing hooks and has seen the number of albatrosses and petrels caught in local waters fall by 85 per cent over a year.

The full findings will be unveiled tonight at a special reception in Clarence House. Among those attending will be the Prince of Wales, who once said that the demise of the seabirds would be an “an appalling commentary on the way we treat the world”.

The project dates back to 2006, when the Albatross Task Force was launched in the wake of the growing number of birds unintentionally killed by long-line fishing boats operating in the Southern Ocean. The scheme was approved by the South African government and local fishing industries. Some 18 out of 22 species of the long-lived bird are at risk of extinction, with fishing the main threat to their survival. Albatrosses are among the largest of flying birds, and the great albatrosses have the largest wingspans of any bird. The group responded by deploying a number of trained experts on fishing vessels to instruct crews on ways to prevent birds becoming entangled in the lines that trail fishing boats.

Comprising a number of cost-effective options, the main measure was to deploy streamers, or tori lines, that fall off the back of the boat towards a buoy stationed in the sea, creating a “curtain” that scares the birds away from the baited fishing lines. Fishermen are also encouraged to sink their lines at night, when the birds are asleep, or use weighted hooks that sink quickly and coloured ones that are more difficult for birds in flight to spot.

After piloting the scheme with fishermen and local government in South Africa, the number of albatrosses and petrels caught on the lines of the foreign long-line fishing fleet dropped from 1,016 in 2007 to 153 in 2008.

This was also helped by new permit conditions that were brought in for the long-line fishing industry in South Africa in 2008 which limited seabird “bycatch” to 25 birds, making fishermen take more responsibility for preventing bird deaths.

Dr Ross Wanless, co-ordinator of the Birdlife global seabird programme in Africa, said: “We have to adopt an ecosystem approach to fisheries, to minimise the impacts of fishing on non-target species, including seabirds. Changing entrenched attitudes and practices is a slow process, but the ATF has shown that by working with government and industry, change is possible.” The solution provides new hope for the albatross.

Grahame Madge, conservation spokesman for the RSPB, said: “The problem has been exacerbated in recent years with the industrialisation of fisheries, larger fishing numbers, new technology and the rise of trawl fishing.”

Meidad Goren, who leads the task force, said that compliance with protection measures had reached 96 per cent on the boats, and the measures had not reduced the number of fish caught.

“Seabirds are attracted to the baited hooks and if they get caught they drown as the line sinks. We spend a great deal of time with the fishermen showing them ways to prevent the birds from getting hooked,” he said. “Fishermen can continue to make a living without harming these endangered birds. They now understand that in order to continue fishing they must avoid killing seabirds, and are very co-operative.”

The scheme has since been rolled out in other international “hotspots” where albatrosses are most at risk from long-line fishing, including waters around Namibia, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador and Chile. The first set of results will be revealed later this year.

Albatross: Facts and figures

*The UK overseas regions have seven pairs of breeding albatrosses – more than half of the Southern Hemisphere’s breeding pairs.

*The number of albatross species is debated and ranges from 13 to 24; 21 is the commonly accepted number.

*Of the assumed 21 species, 18 are thought to be at the risk of extinction, with fishing the main threat.

*An albatross is the central emblem in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and a metaphor used in Charles Baudelaire’s poetry.

*The name albatross is derived from the Arabic meaning for “a pelican” and the Portuguese form Alcatraz, which is also the origin of the name of the former prison.

*Albatrosses pair for life. If their partner dies they may search for years for a new mate without luck.

*The bird has a low reproductive rate, with many producing only one egg a year, and has a life expectancy of 60. They spend most of their lives at sea and can sleep on the ocean.

*A grey-headed albatross from south Georgia was recorded flying around the world in 46 days.

*Albatrosses depend on strong winds to fly efficiently so the equatorial doldrums acts as a barrier.

*Albatrosses can be found in every ocean except the North Atlantic.

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