The Wandering Albatross - On a Wing and a Prayer - Bruce Stannard reports on the fate of Australia’s most endangered seabird.

The iconic Wandering Albatross, the largest winged creature on the planet, is now hovering on the brink of extinction in Australian waters. With just 10 breeding pairs left on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island, the survival of the tiny colony seems highly unlikely.

Look closely at this magnificent portrait and tell me that your heart does not soar like the great bird itself.

This is the great Wandering Albatross of ancient legend, Diomedea exulans, the fearless storm rider, the winged exile that rules the wintry seas at very ends of the earth. The adult male in this extraordinary photograph probably weighs around 12kilos and has a wingspan of at least three and a half metres.

Now look at the image on page 23. This is another Wandering Albatross and that is a long-liner’s stainless steel hook embedded in its throat. Tell me that your heart does not sink into the depths of despair like the drowned bird itself. I know mine does.

Nesting Wandering Albatross, Iles Crozet, Indian Ocean.If you detect a note of outrage in these words, you’re absolutely right. I am meant to be a dispassionate observer, a cool reporter of facts, but I have to confess that in this instance I am very angry. I’m also feeling more than a little guilty and so should we all, because as human beings, each and every one of us bears some measure of moral responsibility for the ignominious end now facing albatross populations in Australian waters and indeed right across the Southern Ocean.

We have all sat back on our collective haunches, watching while the greed and stupidity of the large-scale commercial long-line fishing fleets have brought this iconic bird to the very brink of extinction. The largest and longest-lived bird in the world is now among the most rapidly declining creatures on the planet.

Each year over 100,000 albatrosses are dragged to their death beneath the sea after being caught on baited hooks deployed by long-line fishermen from Japan, Taiwan, Korea and various flag-of-convenience states whose high-seas fleets operate with impunity beyond the rule of law.
Unlike the Japanese whaling fleets, which are harassed so relentlessly by conservationist in Antarctic waters, only a handful of activists have so far braved the Southern Ocean in defence of the albatross. It’s open slather out there where the Albatross is simply written off as “bycatch”.

The result is that 19 of the 21 species of albatross are now officially listed as endangered. Other seabirds also succumb to the temptation of the baited hooks. According to the most recent data, over 300,000 seabirds die each year in global long-line fisheries.

In plundering the Southern Ocean, the fishermen deploy longlines that stretch up to 130 kilometres (80 nautical miles) behind their vessels. Each line is baited with as many as 10,000 barbed, stainless steel hooks set for species like Patagonian Toothfish, Swordfish and Blue Fine Tuna.

As the lines stream aft, the baits provide the easiest of targets for the scavenging albatrosses, which spend much of their long lives scouring the waves for just such tasty morsels.

Wandering Albatross, Iles Crozet, Indian Ocean. / Wandering Albatross – Campbell Island, New Zealand. 

Albatrosses attack the floating bait without hesitation. They have been known to dive more than three fathoms below the waves, an aggressive pursuit which often ends in a cruel and truly horrible death by drowning.

The distinguished British broadcaster and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough put it succinctly when he said: “for an Albatross, taking a fish from a baited hook is no different from a Blue Tit taking peanuts from a garden feeder. The contrast is that the Albatross will pay the heaviest price of all for its meal – its life”.

Sir David points out that the Albatross have survived in the harshest marine environments for 50 million years, more than 100 times longer than our own species. However, he says, these magnificent birds are simply unable to cope with man-made threats such as longline fishing.
Albatrosses mate for life and produce only one egg every year. For some species like the Wandering Albatross, it’s one egg every two years. They are being killed in such vast numbers that they cannot breed fast enough to keep pace with the rate of attrition.

The extraordinary thing is that the senseless slaughter of the Albatross could so easily be avoided. Experts believe that the death toll would cease immediately if the nations whose fishing fleets operate in sub-Antarctic waters were to follow the few simple rules laid down by CCAMLR, the regional fishing management organisation whose members include the 24 countries involved in the sub-Antarctic fishery.

These rules include adding weights to the fishing lines so that they sink much more quickly; setting the lines at night when the Albatross are much less likely to be feeding; and using the so-called tori-lines (multi-coloured streamers) to scare the birds away from the baited hooks. Unfortunately, these simple but highly effective measures are not binding and cannot be enforced. They are really little more than recommendations, which may or may not be acted upon by the fishermen.

Wandering Albatross, Iles Crozet, Indian Ocean.While Australia and Great Britain have taken the lead in demonstrating how to take decisive action, many other nations, particularly those fishing in waters outside the CCAMLR convention, have steadfastly refused to act.

Australian fishermen, working in Bass Strait, have successfully employed all three measures but Graham Robertson, a seabird ecologist at the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart says there has been a “catastrophic decrease” on South Georgia in the British Falkland Islands where the Wandering Albatross population has crashed from over 2,000 breeding pairs to less than 800 pairs over the past 50 years.

Nesting Wandering Albatross, Iles Crozet, Indian Ocean.The crash continues despite the British decision to close fishing operations during the summer months between September and the end of April when the Albatross are breeding in the sub-Antarctic islands which lie between 47 and 56 degrees south latitude.

The action appears to have come too late to halt the dramatic slide toward extinction now being faced by South Georgia’s Wandering, Grey Headed and Black Browed Albatrosses whose numbers have fallen by 30 per cent in the last 20 years. The population of the great Wandering Albatross, the stellar bird of the Southern Ocean, remains in sharp decline with an annual mortality rate of five per cent. Graham Robertson describes this as “an unmitigated disaster”.
If the current rate of decline continues, the Wandering Albatross populations of South Georgia will, almost certainly, go the way of the Dodo, possibly within the next decade.

Wandering Albatross aseaWith only 10 breeding pairs left on Macquarie Island, the end may well come much sooner for Australia’s last Wanderers. The tragedy now unfolding on the World Heritage Listed island is very much one of our own making.

When Macquarie Island was discovered in 1810 there were an estimated 400,000 fur seals crowding the rocky coastline. Within 18 months sealers had slaughtered 120,000 of them. Ten years later the fur seal population had been almost wiped out. The sealers then turned their attention to the elephant seals whose blubber contained oils then in commercial use.

By the mid-1840s the elephant seal population had been reduced by 70 per cent. The slaughter then focused on the vast King Penguin colony at Lusitania Bay. A factory was set up to process 2,000 penguins at a time. In order to help feed the factory’s work force, rabbits were introduced and their arrival signalled the beginning of the end for the Wandering Albatross.
Unlike other birds, the Wandering Albatross does not fetch and carry sticks and grass and guano to construct its extraordinary conical nest. Instead it gathers its nesting material only from the immediate vicinity. With the rabbit population in the hundreds of thousands, much of the material around the traditional nesting colonies was soon denuded. When existing nests fell apart they could not be repaired while new nests became impossible to build.

Although Wandering Albatrosses return year after year to their natal islands to breed and brood their chicks, there now seems to be very little incentive for them to do so on Macquarie Island.
The problem was greatly exacerbated by the recent protracted dispute in which Tasmanian and federal government bureaucrats argued over who would pay for the extermination of the rabbits. By the time that issue was eventually resolved the Wandering Albatross colony was reduced to just 10 breeding pairs.

Graham Robertson describes the Macquarie Island colony as “now little more than residual”.

“It has been cut to the bone,” he said. “Now they’re just hanging on.”

I am beyond anger now. I’m deeply, deeply sad and profoundly disappointed that once again the greed and avarice of my own species is directly responsible for the death of another.

“The Albatross have survived in the harshest marine environments for 50 million years, more than 100 times longer than our own species. However, these magnificent birds are simply unable to cope with man-made threats such as longline fishing.” – distinguished British broadcaster and naturalist, Sir David Attenborough.

Read the Special Supplement here: Poetry in Motion - In Praise of the Wandering Albatross