New tracking data shows danger zones for antipodal albatross

The Antipodean Albatross travels thousands of miles in search of food © Stephanie Borrelle

With its enormous span The antipodal albatross Diomedea antipodensis and its impressive long-range flight ability seem almost indestructible. But if we don’t act soon, this majestic ocean walker breeding on a scattering of islands off New Zealand could be inoperable within 20 years due to the shockingly high number of fishing-related deaths.

This magnificent sea bird (a close relative of the largest flying bird in the world, the migratory albatross Diomedea exulans) can live to be over 70 years old. Antipodean albatrosses do not start breeding until they are ten years old and even then only lay one egg with each breeding attempt (usually every two years). This slow rate of reproduction makes the species extremely vulnerable to human threats, and in 2018 its conservation status was upgraded to Vulnerable, as more than half of its breeding population had been lost since 2004.

In a previous article we described how accidental bycatch in longline fisheries leads to a rapid decline in numbers and how the remaining population suffers from an inequality of sex due to the tendency of women to forage in areas with a higher density of longline vessels two men for each woman.

To learn more, in 2019 the researchers fitted 63 antipodal albatrosses with satellite transmitters and tracked them for up to 12 months. During that time, eight transmitters stopped working near fishing vessels, and one transmitter was later salvaged by a bird caught by a longline vessel on the high seas in American Samoa.

When researchers overlaid these tracking data with longline fishing boat distributions, they found that the areas with the greatest overlap were on the high seas in the western Pacific, particularly the central Tasman Sea and northeastern New Zealand. When this tracking information was broken down by flag state, several key fishing fleets were discovered in areas frequented by the species, including Taiwan, Vanuatu (although vessels are likely operated by companies in Taiwan or China), New Zealand, China, and Spain.

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The red ovals mark the areas with the highest risk for antipodal albatross. Source: Bose, S. & Debski, I. (2020). The spatial distribution of the antipodean albatross and fisheries will overlap in 2019.

This information is essential to determine where efforts to reduce bycatch of seabirds should be made. The New Zealand government has already mandated the fishing industry at both national and international diplomatic levels to ensure that mitigation measures (such as bird protection lines, weighted fishing lines, hook guards and nocturnal fishing lines) are in place in these risk areas. They recently introduced regulations mandating cameras on board merchant ships fishing in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone west of the North Island. These regulations will continue to be implemented in 2021 and aim to improve on-board surveillance to ensure compliance with mitigation measures.

In order to address other fleets on the high seas, it is necessary to work with the relevant regional tuna fisheries organizations (RFMOs), which control the rules for worldwide tuna fishing. We must press for the tightening of existing regulations that require mitigation measures to be used in areas of the ocean where the risk of bycatch for seabirds is high.

BirdLife continues to work with other conservation NGOs to improve the protection of seabirds in these areas. For example, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission (WCPFC) is responsible for managing tuna fisheries in the Antipodal Albatross area. Here we advocate increasing observer coverage on boats – from 5% (a value that has not changed in over a decade) to 100%. It has been shown that greater observer coverage dramatically improves compliance with measures to reduce bycatch of seabirds. However, this work is challenging. In the absence of a comprehensive system of independent monitoring, the rules in force are already difficult to monitor and enforce.

Another approach BirdLife has taken is to speak to ship owners when they call at ports across the Pacific. BirdLife Pacific is already running a ports program in Fiji that employs a local Fijian to speak to fishermen about bycatch regulations for seabirds. There is even a local women’s group that makes bird watchers for ships entering the ports of Fiji. This work has increased crew awareness of ships arriving in the port of Suva. They are now much better informed about their obligations under the RFMO and especially about the plight of the antipodean albatross.

However, without urgent action from the fishing industry and the WCPFC, the future of the antipodean albatross will become increasingly precarious. If we want this majestic species to continue to inspire future generations, we must stop unnecessary deaths in commercial fisheries.

So what can you do for this emblematic bird? Market pressures are one of the most effective ways to change business practices. Choosing an MSC certified tuna and asking the restaurants where the tuna they serve is caught and whether it comes from sustainable sources is a step in the right direction. As the demand for responsible, seabird-friendly seafood increases, companies will be forced to respond.