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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Threatened Albatross

Air Date: Week of

Albatross in the Beagle Channel ( Longhorndave, Flickr Creative Commons.)

A coalition of conservationists has been trying to persuade fishing boat owners to adopt measures to reduce the number of seabirds, especially the albatross, killed by the long fishing lines of the tuna fleet. The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is part of this effort. Host Jeff Young talks with press officer Grahame Madge about how to protect the seabirds.


YOUNG: The tuna fishery’s also affecting seabirds – including the albatross. Humans have a long history with the albatross – think of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. You’ll recall things didn’t turn out well for the bird in that story. Thanks to us, many species of these extraordinary birds are in trouble. A coalition of conservationists, including the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds wants to persuade fishing boat owners to reduce their impact. The Society’s Grahame Madge joins us now – and Grahame – how do these fishing boats kill seabirds?

MADGE: Basically, the problem is when you have a long line paid out from the back of the vessel and every ten meters or so is a hook baited with fish or squid, and that provides a very easy meal for albatrosses, petrels, and other seabirds to try and come in and steal the bait of the back of the hook. The problem is, of course, that occasionally birds do get snagged and then the seabirds get dragged under very quickly and the bird will plum to its inevitable doom, only to be recovered as a corpse several hours later.

YOUNG: Tell me about the status of some of these species; are they more or less stable, or are they already in trouble anyway?

MADGE: There are 22 species of albatross around the world, all of them have a very uncertain future, and 18 of those 22 are reckoned to be facing extinction. And studies, for example, at South Georgia in the south Atlantic have shown that the number of albatross nests counted there between the 1960s and earlier this year have halved. And that the only reason for the loss of those birds is interactions with fisheries, principally, long lining.

YOUNG: So, what is it you want to see done? You’re calling for some sort of measures to mitigate the loss here? What do you want them to do?

MADGE: What we want the tuna fisheries to do is to adopt more mitigation measures. So, for example, if fishing vessels can pay out streamer lines from the back of their vessels that will enable them to build effectively two curtains down either side of the long line, which deters albatrosses and other seabirds from getting too close to that killing zone right at the back of the boat.

YOUNG: So these are a big fluttering streamers that kind of fly out from the back of the boat there – it’s kind of like a scarecrow off the back of the boat, to keep – shoo the birds away?

Albatross in the Beagle Channel (Longhorndave, Flickr Creative Commons.)

MADGE: It’s exactly the same principle as a scarecrow; there are two lines that are tied on to the super structure of the vessel at one end and they’re attached to buoys at the other, which float on the surface of the sea. These buoys are then dragged along by the lines, and then suspended from that line; are basically streamers, which can be brightly colored rubber tubing or ribbon-like material. It flaps in the wind, and amazingly it keeps the seabirds away from the vessel.

YOUNG: And that sounds very low-tech, very low-cost; sounds fairly simply.

MADGE: It does sound very simple when you explain it like that, doesn’t it? But, for some reason there does seem to be some reluctance among fisheries around the world to adopt these very simple measures. We don’t know why – they’re very cheap, they can be repaired if they break, it’s a proven measure. The seabirds, which are the fastest declining group of birds on the planet, don’t have to be declining. It’s largely because of fisheries and the fishing industry could win a PR coup by actually bringing in the measures necessary to protect these birds for future generations.

YOUNG: Now, why focus on the albatross? You’ve sort of made them the poster bird here – why the albatross?

MADGE: The albatross has been the icon of our Save the Seabirds Program. There’s something about an albatross that touches you, even if you’ve not seen one and it’s that that we’ve been tapping into really, this public consciousness toward albatrosses. And when you think that albatrosses can live until they’re 60, be breathing until the age of 50, but lay one egg every two years, when you start losing birds from that population, then that’s really bad news for the individual, but also for the species, itself. The Wandering albatross certainly has the largest wingspan of any bird and it’s a bird that is supremely adapted to its environment. When you see these magnificent creatures in their environment, it makes you realize what a wonderful force evolution is and how terrible it would be if these birds weren’t sail the winds any longer.

YOUNG: Grahame Madge of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Thank you very much.

MADGE: Thank you.

YOUNG: You can learn much more about the albatross and check out a guide to smart seafood choices at our website LOE dot ORG.



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