For centuries the albatross has been a good omen for fishermen. Seeing one meant you were going to have a good haul that day. They were so revered, in fact, that to kill one would result in a curse falling upon the entire crew. Technology seemingly left that combination of self-preservation and reverence in the past, though. Now long-line fishing claims the lives of thousands of albatrosses daily as bycatch, with no fear of a curse.
In a stirring sign, though, three international commissions are implementing measures that work to protect this majestic bird from becoming entangled in long-lines. A collaboration between a conservation group and a fisheries agency has also formed, seizing the opportunity to educate stakeholders on the importance of the albatross and how mitigation measures will be put into action. This sort of collaboration can provide a model as we move forward, looking for innovative and mutually-beneficial ways to practice sustainable fishing.
Amazing facts of the almighty albatross
Albatrosses are truly stunning seabirds. As the largest flying birds, they have wingspans reaching upwards of 11 feet and a body weight up to 25 pounds. Certain species live up to 70 years and they mate for life. They only lay one egg during the breeding season, often only laying every other year. Parents have been known to travel over 6,000 miles to gather food for their chicks, locking special bones in their wings that allow them to effortlessly glide over land and sea. They have been documented circumnavigating the globe in 46 days.
The albatross is a symbol of grace and beauty, and achieved a revered status among fishermen centuries ago. The famous poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner speaks of the act of killing a harmless albatross and the ensuing curse upon the crew of a ship. Written over 200 years ago, this poem marks the importance of the albatross even then and how it is awful luck to kill them.
However magnificent they may be, albatrosses are in trouble. There are 22 species, 17 of which are threatened with extinction. One of the greatest threats is the hook at the end of a long-line. Worldwide one albatross dies every five minutes, and over 100,000 albatrosses die each year from long-lines. Albatrosses naturally feed on small forage fish swimming at the surface of the ocean. Fish used as bait on hooks look like a tasty and easy meal to an albatross. They attempt to eat these bait fish and get hooked, and then they are dragged under the waves and drowned.
Killing so many albatrosses is not just a bad omen for fishermen. Albatrosses play a vital role in the seabird community and their disappearance could be devastating for countless ocean and coastal ecosystems. Simple measures can be taken to ensure that albatrosses do not die as bycatch. Fortunately, there are fisheries agencies, scientists and fishermen that have recognized this and have begun undertaking preventative gear and fishing method changes.
Fishermen work to save the albatross
One of the biggest culprits of long-line albatross death is the world’s tuna fisheries. Three of the five tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) in the world have just recently agreed to strengthen their bycatch mitigation methods. They are now requiring fishing vessels to implement at least two of the three following methods:
- Bird scattering lines – Bright plastic streamers that are dangled over lines and hooks that scare away any nearby birds attempting to go after fishing bait.
- Setting fishing lines at night – Most seabirds, including albatross, feed during the day. By setting lines at night, fishermen can avoid the attention of hungry birds.
- Heavier weights on lines – Lines would sink faster, pulling the hook out of the reach of albatross and other birds too quickly for them to catch the bait in their beaks.
These measures have been shown to reduce seabird bycatch by 80-90%. Gear changes off the coast of Chile led to saving 1,500 black-browed albatrosses each year. A population that was rapidly shrinking has recuperated quickly and is now growing at 7% each year. This shows us that albatrosses can be rebound effectively once human-caused deaths are removed. However, scientific studies are not often enough to convince stakeholders that such preventative measures need to be employed. This is where education takes the reins.
Birdlife International, a world leader in bird conservation, partnered with the Taiwanese Fisheries Agency to gather stakeholders in Taiwan to educate them on seabird bycatch mitigation. Taiwan’s fishing fleet is spread out over the greatest albatross territory. Participants experienced training and demonstrations along with a day onboard a Taiwanese fishing vessel. This workshop served to educate fishing captains, masters, and representatives from fisheries management agencies on the importance of the albatross and the ease of incorporating measures to protect them. With collaboration among all of these involved parties and the effective measures put into place, we can surely save albatrosses across the world.
How to save a species
The process of regulation, education and collaboration is the key to preserving all species, not just the albatross. The first step is bringing about the proper restrictions in collaboration with scientists. Education is often undervalued as a tool to establish proper fishing methods. In reality, it can be the most effecting item. People who understand the entirety of an issue are much more likely to willingly become involved and to be a part of the whole picture. Often all it takes to get the momentum on a conservation issue is explaining or demonstrating concepts and measures.
These new measures will help save countless albatrosses. Perhaps they can serve as an example of how so many different groups can come together on a common cause and ensure the survival of our ocean’s creatures. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner was forced to wander the earth, telling his nightmare tale of woe. That fate won’t befall us- but letting such a majestic and important bird go extinct will lead to something far worse. Don’t forget what happened to the man to whom the Mariner told his tale.