Saving Seabirds – Australian Antarctic Program (News 2021)
On World Albatross Day, learn how scientists are working to tackle some of the major threats facing albatrosses and other majestic seabirds.
The admiration for albatrosses by seabird scientists, including Dr Barbara Wienecke of the Australian Antarctic Division, is immediately apparent.
“Standing anywhere near a cliff when an albatross is about to take off is just a sight to see,” Dr Wienecke said.
“These magnificent birds spend a large part of their lives in the air without flapping their wings… it’s extraordinary.
The devastation they feel from the loss of so many albatrosses and other seabirds is drowning in commercial trawl and longline fisheries around the world.
Albatrosses tend to swallow baited hooks near the surface, while deeper diving seabirds, such as petrels and shearwaters, get their wings or feet caught in the hooks when the lines sink.
This led to the inclusion of 17 of the 22 albatross species on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Conservation science meets primary industry
The terrible loss of life has prompted scientists like former Australian Antarctic Division seabird ecologist Dr Graham Robertson to devote their careers to finding ways to protect seabirds.
Dr Robertson has spent decades working with longline fishing vessels to develop line weights and other technologies to quickly remove baited hooks from the surface.
“I have mainly focused on methods to accelerate the drop rate of baited hooks in the upper regions of the water column, and have applied it to all major commercial longline fisheries that capture seabirds in the world, ”said Dr. Robertson.
“The most successful project I have worked on was to develop fast sinking lines for toothfish longline fisheries in the Southern Ocean and around New Zealand in the 1990s.
“All of the boats that used this particular fishing practice adopted the new gear, and we have reduced seabird bycatch from about 1,000 per year to zero.”
Dr Robertson’s work at the interface of industry, science and policy has seen a series of ‘conservation measures’ to protect seabirds adopted by the Commission for the Conservation of Living Marine Resources ‘Antarctica (CCAMLR), which regulates fishing in the Southern Ocean.
As a result, he said longline fishing in the Southern Ocean is “albatross compatible” and “global best practice”.
However, seabirds still face fishing threats in other parts of the world, and will continue to do so given their range and biology, according to seabird biologist Dr Jaimie Cleeland. of the Australian Antarctic Division.
“We know that albatrosses do not respect geopolitical boundaries and cross vast ocean basins, so the threats they face are uneven across all oceans,” said Dr Cleeland.
“Albatrosses will always be very vulnerable to fishing and artificial increases in mortality due to their slow reproduction.
“It may take them several years of courtship before they finally lay an egg, and it takes a long time for the chick to take flight.
“Once it takes flight, this chick can be at sea for five to 15 years before returning to the colony to breed.”
Birds also face other threats.
“Our planet is changing,” said Dr. Cleeland.
“There are changes in the wind patterns around the Southern Ocean that affect the flight of albatrosses, and potentially how they find food and whether that food is available to them. We also see invasive species on many albatross islands, and these species can change the habitat where these albatrosses breed or they can attack adults or chicks.
A better world for albatrosses
But there are islands of hope, including Macquarie Island, where a successful rabbit and rodent eradication program, completed in 2014, has restored breeding habitat for seabirds.
Decades of conservation oversight on the island by the Australian Antarctic Division, the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service and the Marine Conservation Program of the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and environment, have revealed that some endangered seabirds are starting to recover – including the black-browed albatross.
“I hope we can continue to work together in fisheries management, in island conservation and with our climate change strategies, to reduce some of these aggravating threats and truly create a better world for albatrosses.” said Dr Cleeland.
“If we can have these multi-pronged investigative and conservation solutions, we’ll do a lot better to achieve population recovery.” “