22 Oct 2019

Shy by name, not by nature: Shy Albatross threatened by human interaction

For centuries, this albatross's slow and measured approach to breeding worked just fine. But now, facing new human threats, will this become the 16th out of all 22 albatross species to be listed as globally threatened?

Shy Albatross © Andre Anita
By Cressida Stevens

The Shy Albatross Thalassarche cauta (Near Threatened) glides over the Indian Ocean, hoisted on mighty wings spanning 2.5 metres. These ocean wanderers often travel the distance between Australia and South Africa in search of food, but despite this impressive range, their breeding colonies are restricted to just three islands in Tasmania, where all Shy Albatrosses far and wide return to reproduce. It’s not only their birthplace to which individuals remain faithful. When they finally find ‘the one’, after a great deal of courting with potential mates, they stay true to that partner for life. A pair of Shy Albatrosses will devote all their parental efforts to just one egg - one chick - each year, sharing the responsibilities of incubation and feeding. Such a diligent and deliberate approach to raising offspring should result in high breeding success, but humans have brought threats that all the parental care in the world cannot always overcome.

At the start of the 20th century, populations were decimated by the harvesting of their feathers, which were used to plump up mattresses. It was only when numbers got so low that trade was no longer viable that the population began to recover. But having dodged this bullet, the species now faces a challenge that won’t let up so easily – climate change. Increased rainfall has lowered reproductive success at the aptly-named Albatross Island, and violent waves are a hazard for the exposed Pedra Branca colony.

While the climate is an ongoing concern, the greatest cause of mortality for this bird today is incidental bycatch by longline fisheries. For a hungry bird at sea, often with two mouths to feed, the perilous lure of a fishing vessel is too great and by chancing a free meal they become ensnared on fishing hooks. It’s a cruel twist of fate that the Shy Albatrosses’ lack of shyness around humans has the species heading towards a classification of Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. But let’s not victim blame – the responsibility is ours. Fortunately our Albatross Task Force is working directly with fishermen worldwide to reduce incidents of bycatch.

 

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