Science and Conservation

While humans are no longer harvesting shy albatross, we continue to threaten their long-term survival in myriad of ways. Two of the biggest threats for shy albatross are interactions with fisheries and anthropogenic climate change. Albatross are renowned for their ship-following habits. In Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, it was considered a good omen to have an albatross behind the boat. When the narrator shot one with a crossbow the fortunes of the ship and crew changed dramatically for the worse. Early travellers to Australia were not deterred by omens, and made sport of shooting albatross to ease the boredom of a long sea voyage.

Unfortunately, ship-following behaviour continues to bring bad fortune to the albatross. Albatross are particularly drawn to fishing vessels where there is usually an abundance of food, such as bait and the offal and discards which are thrown overboard. Hooking or entanglement with fishing gear while feeding leads to the death of many thousands of birds on fishing vessels around the world. This mortality is one of the most pervasive threats to albatross populations and contributes to the endangered status of albatross species around the globe.

Conservation scientists and fishers have worked hard to develop ways to catch fish without killing birds and educating the industry and consumers. Many improvements have been made, particularly in the development of practical mitigation measures such as bird scaring devices. Areas where birds and fisheries overlap can be closed to certain types of fishing – tracking data have been important in understanding where these areas are located. Despite improvements, particularly in Australian fisheries, reducing bird deaths due to fishing is an ongoing management challenge.

The greatest challenge looming for shy albatross, as for many other species, is climate change. We know that changes in the ocean will have many effects on a species. We have compelling evidence already that the ocean areas occupied by shy albatross are changing. Around south-east Australia lies one of the fastest warming ocean areas. Many biological changes have already been observed in the region – many fish and plankton species are moving further south and the ocean is now less productive around the breeding colonies. What will be the specific effects on shy albatross? Unfortunately, the rapid rate of climate change means we may have little time to understand all the impacts. Some species can respond naturally to negative impacts of climate change by moving to new regions.

If the rate of climate change was slower, albatross may be able to respond, as they have in the past, for example to changes in sea level that made new breeding locations available. Natural responses can be slow, however, and moving is not an easy option for albatrosses because of their life-history. The natal philopatry that compels young birds to return to their colony of origin, and adults to return annually to the same nest to breed each year, limits the capacity of a population to relocate to a more favourable breeding site. The need to return to the nest regularly also limits the distance that birds can go to if their usual foraging areas are no longer providing enough food.

Another option is to adapt or evolve to the new conditions. However, the low reproductive rate and long generation time of albatross means the process of selection for favourable behavioural or physical traits is likely too slow for this species to adapt to rapid change. Despite these challenges, we can help shy albatross. Managers can respond by minimising other threats. Scientists continue to work with fisheries managers to reduce albatross deaths caused by fishing. We can reduce the amount of marine pollution and plastics in the ocean – plastics that are ingested by foraging seabirds. We can increase the level of protection we provide to albatross when they congregate at the breeding colony. Accordingly, access to Albatross Island is restricted to ensure there are no introductions of feral species, spread of diseases, unnecessary disturbance, and habitat destruction.

Unfortunately, the climate changes that are forecast over the next hundred years, mean these actions are unlikelyto be enough. Declines in shy albatross abundance have been projected over the next 100 years, even if fishing no longer kills any birds. As a result, we are now focusing on trying to better understand how, when and where variation in the marine and breeding environment influences shy albatross populations. We are starting new monitoring approaches – such as remote cameras, temperature loggers, and genetic techniques – to rapidly fill important gaps in our knowledge. At the same time, we are working to identify and evaluate practical ways we can bolster the population on Albatross Island, so that we are well prepared should the need arise.

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