NEWPORT, Ore. – The once-abundant short-tailed albatross was hunted to near-extinction before protective measures were put in place and today scientists are working hard to protect the seabird from another danger – interactions with commercial fisheries.
Their concerns are both ecological and economic. Only an estimated 2,200 birds remain worldwide, thus protecting the albatross so it can repopulate is an obvious goal. But different fishing industries also have a vested interest – if too many of the birds are killed through incidental “bycatch,” those regional fisheries could be shut down.
“The plight of albatrosses is of global concern,” said Rob Suryan, an assistant research professor at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu. “Nineteen of a total of 21 albatross species globally are listed as threatened, primarily because of mortality in unregulated fisheries. These are highly migratory seabirds traveling through the world’s oceans and encountering domestic and international fisheries from many countries.”
The primary mortality for albatrosses, Suryan said, comes from “longlining,” a method of fishing using thousands of baited hooks that can attract birds as well as fish. Of the albatross species, the short-tailed albatross is among the scarcest with only a remnant of its historic population remaining. As the birds range throughout the northern Pacific Ocean, they encounter numerous fisheries.
“In Alaska, if two short-tailed albatrosses are killed in a fishery during a two-year period, that fishery could be shut down,” Suryan pointed out. “The entire Alaska groundfish fishery, worth upwards of $320 million, is limited to no more than six short-tailed albatrosses every two years.
“So the fishing industry is understandably interested in research to protect the birds.”
That research is happening on three fronts. Some fisheries are using a system of streamers attached to the lines that keep the birds away from baited hooks and dangerous cables as they enter the water. The streamer system, used in Alaska, was developed by Washington Sea Grant specialist Ed Melvin. It acts as a curtain and keeps albatross and other species from becoming accidentally hooked.
In Japan, researchers are working to enhance nesting and breeding for the short-tailed albatross, which takes place on only two island regions in the world. In February, OSU’s Suryan joined Japanese researchers in relocating 10 chicks from their home on Torishima – where 85 percent of the world’s short-tailed albatross population breeds – to a new island, Mukojima. The remaining 15 percent of the birds breed on the Senkaku Islands, disputed territory claimed by Japan, the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of China (Taiwan).
“Torishima is volcanically unstable, and Senkaku is politically unstable,” Suryan said, “so the need to establish a new breeding area for the birds was urgent.” Torishimi had major eruptions in 1902 and 1939, he added, the latter eruption destroying much of the birds’ breeding habitat, which Japanese researchers are trying to rebuild.
The third part of the research agenda is Suryan’s specialty – tagging and tracking short-tailed albatross juveniles and adults through satellite telemetry, then integrating satellite remote sensing of ocean conditions and fisheries observer data to determine habitat use and the potential overlap with commercial fisheries. A seabird ecologist, Suryan specializes in studying how changes in the marine environment affect population dynamics and the at-sea distribution of birds.
Albatrosses can be particularly difficult to study at sea, he pointed out, because their range is enormous.
“Adults will go on foraging trips over several thousands of miles to bring back food,” Suryan said. “The chicks may go a week or two without anything to eat, and their growth and survival may depend on the frequency of their feeding. One of the things we’re looking into is whether climate change will affect the distribution of food for the albatross, and change the feeding and foraging patterns.”
During his sojourn to Japan earlier this year, Suryan helped gather 10 of the short-tailed albatross chicks from Torishima for transport via helicopter to Mukojima. In May he will return to tag the fledglings and will monitor them to see if they travel in a similar pattern to their cousins on the other island. He also is studying ocean conditions and food sources to learn more about why the birds range where they do.
The short-tailed albatross is a long-lived species that is slow to mature. It takes eight months to incubate a single egg and rear a chick and once they leave the island, Suryan said, they may not return to the colony for three to eight years. Average breeding age for the birds is 6-8 years, and they can live to a ripe old age of 40 years or more.
Once they leave their breeding islands, the birds may head north to Russia, or directly to Alaska and the Bering Sea, then down the Pacific Coast off of Canada, Washington, Oregon and California. They rarely come closer to shore than 10 to 20 miles, Suryan said, and a sighting off the Oregon coast is rare – happening only 2-3 times a year. “But the sightings are becoming more common,” he said.
In addition to foraging on squid and baitfish, the short-tailed albatross is a scavenger.
“When orcas, sharks or other sub-surface predators feed on large prey – fish or mammals – albatrosses will often be there to pick up the pieces,” Suryan said. “This scavenging behavior is why they are attracted to fishing vessels that discard fish parts. A single boat can have thousands of seabirds around it.”
Once numbering more than a million birds, the short-tailed albatross was a common food item for some indigenous coastal communities. When they became hunted commercially – their feathers were used for down, quill pens and hats – the demand decimated their population. The species actually was thought to be extinct in the 1940s because no short-tails were sighted at the dozen or so historical breeding sites, but then a handful of birds returned in the early 1950s and settled onto Torishima. Their overall population in recent years has increased by an average of about 7 percent annually.
“Because albatrosses breed on remote islands,” Suryan said, “they aren’t used to predators – especially mammalian. When early explorers got stranded on an island, they literally could walk up to an albatross and club it because the bird didn’t know what they were.”
That trusting nature has made it somewhat easier for Suryan and his Japanese colleagues to conduct their research – relocating the chicks and fitting the birds with transmitters.
“The slow return of the short-tailed albatross and the work with the fishing industry in Alaska to reduce by-catch is a great success story – thanks largely to the industry participation from the beginning,” Suryan said. “These are beautiful, graceful birds with a seven-foot wingspan and they are extraordinarily efficient flyers. It’s nice to see them rebound; they are good companions at sea.”