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Ancient mariner

The wandering albatross is dying in vast numbers – but there is hope too

Simon Barnes | May/June 2015

Some birds are content with a little patch of woodland, a short length of ditch, a back garden or two. Albatrosses have more expansive ambitions. For most of them, home is the entire Southern Ocean. They have their being in distance: their job is the sea and the wind that never dies.

They can lock their wings and travel for ever, gliding at a ratio of 22 feet (6.7 metres) travelled for every foot lost. They can make a trip of 13,000 miles (21,000km) as a matter of routine; they mate for life, which can be 60 years. Albatrosses are about grand ideas. There are 22 species; the biggest is the ineffable wandering albatross, with a wingspan of damn near 12ft. They can effortlessly—and that is the word for their startling economy of energy—travel 600 miles in a day.

The Southern Ocean lies below the 60th parallel, spinning round Antarctica: the only ocean uninterrupted by any significant landmass. Here you meet the highest winds on Earth. Storms spin round in an eastward direction, not so much an event as a climate. The ocean is peppered with bergs that can extend 1,000ft and more beneath the surface. A good deal of the Southern Ocean is rich in nutrients, and the wind-riding albatross evolved to exploit it.

And yet 15 species of albatross are threatened with extinction. They come to fishing boats looking for a free meal and get snagged on the long-line hooks or caught up in the nets. The world’s tuna fisheries overlap 80% of albatross oceans, and the albatrosses come gliding in to scavenge the bait from the hooks, get hooked themselves and are ignominiously pulled under and drowned, at the rate of 100,000 a year.

This is even more serious than it sounds. Albatrosses aren’t boom-and-bust species, creatures that can take setbacks in their stride. They rear one chick every couple of years; their fundamental strategy is to live for a long time. If they keep dying, it no longer works.

It looks on the face of it like one of those completely intractable problems of wildlife conservation, in which human interest overrides all else. The world wants fish, and getting them is difficult and dangerous work. You wouldn’t expect fishing people to go easy on the albatrosses.

But that is what’s happening. Because it’s possible to keep the albatrosses off the hooks, if you really want to. There are three methods: streamers flown from the back of a boat scare the birds away from the danger area; setting lines at night (preferably not a full moon) attracts far fewer birds; weighted lines sink before the birds can reach the hooks.

Used together, these techniques reduce the albatross bycatch by 85% at least; used really well, they can bring it down to zero. The techniques have been developed by Birdlife International’s Albatross Task Force and taught to fishermen. The process has involved liaison with everyone involved in the fishing industry, from deckhands to bureaucrats.

Last November, Namibia, a big player in Southern Ocean fishing, adopted these measures voluntarily, then went on to enforce them by law, joining South Africa, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. Of course, the story doesn’t end here. Fisheries are targeting smaller fish these days, as oceans continue to be overfished, which turns them into competitors for the albatrosses’ prey.

But the Southern Ocean is becoming a safer place for them—a thought as inspiring as the flight of an albatross, nonchalantly riding the big winds.

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