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Hot spots for cool birds


Global research highlighting the most important areas for albatross migration and breeding may yet help save these magical birds from extinction.

Satellite tracking data for 16 species of albatross and three petrel species, all of them threatened by commercial and pirate longline fishing, have been collated by BirdLife International, an alliance of conservation groups. Its report, Tracking Ocean Wanderers, highlights areas where longline fleets are putting seabirds at most risk. The report is a unique collaboration between scientists worldwide and should help determine action governments take to stop albatrosses and petrels becoming extinct.

His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, a keen advocate of the continuing campaign to protect the albatross has sent a letter of support for the project. In the letter, The Prince says: “I simply refuse to accept that these remarkable birds should be allowed to slide quietly into extinction, and particularly not when the damage is entirely man-made and easily preventable.” Commenting directly on the report, The Prince continues: “It brings together real data for the first time to show us where these gravely threatened birds are roving the oceans, enabling us to identify where they are most vulnerable and to safeguard their critical habitat.”

Tracking Ocean Wanderers is being published as parties to the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) meet for the first time, in Tasmania, this week. More than 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses, die as bycatch at the hands of longline fleets every year. This has left all 21 albatross species officially classed as under global threat of extinction. Lines of up to 80 miles (130 kilometres), each carrying thousands of baited hooks, lure the birds, which are dragged under and drowned. These slow-breeding seabirds are being lost faster than they can repopulate.

The report highlights four key findings:

  • Hotspots where concentrations of both longliners and seabirds occur are identified. These include the waters around New Zealand and South-East Australia, the South-West Indian Ocean, South Atlantic and North Pacific.
  • The importance of coastal shelf areas for albatrosses and petrels whilst breeding, and of highly productive oceanic regions such as the Humboldt Current, the Patagonian Shelf, the Antarctic Polar Frontal Zone, and the Benguela Current.
  • The differences in foraging areas used by breeding and non-breeding adults, and young and mature birds. Brooding albatrosses rely on foraging grounds close to breeding sites and, as chicks grow, the range of adult breeding birds extends.
  • The huge distances travelled on migration by some species; the northern royal albatross flies up to 1,800 kilometres in 24 hours and the grey-headed albatross can circle the globe in 42 days.

Cleo Small, International Marine Policy Officer at BirdLife International said: “Identifying areas where albatrosses and fishermen overlap is a crucial conservation step. To save these birds from extinction, the fishing industry, government and conservationists need to collaborate to implement simple, innovative and effective initiatives to reduce seabird mortality across all oceanic waters, regardless of their jurisdiction. “This research could not be more timely. It will focus minds on exactly what needs to be done to save these magnificent seabirds and where that action is most urgent.”

John Croxall, Head of Conservation Biology, British Antarctic Survey said: “The data, and the results presented in this report, will be of immense assistance in developing the work of the new ACAP.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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