7 Jun 2019

It’s not all plain sailing for seabirds, but with some help it can be

As we celebrate World Environment Day and World Ocean Day with #AlbatrossStories, we’re taking a look at a conservation tale of terrible decline, but one which we have the power to give a happy ending.

Wandering Albatross in flight. © Stephanie Winnard
By Georgia Darby

Seabirds are some of the most beautiful and majestic birds on the planet. They have inspired art and poetry, music and fiction. They are an important part of many cultures and vital to marine and coastal ecosystems. During #AlbatrossStories we have marvelled at the intricate relationships between our albatross stars and admired the lengths the parents go to feed their chicks. We have been in awe of their life histories: how they spend months on the wing, soaring above the oceans and circumnavigating the globe.

This makes it all the more difficult to learn that seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world. Of the 346 seabird species, nearly a third (101) are under threat and over half are experiencing population declines. Albatross species are particularly endangered, with 15 of the 22 albatross species facing extinction.

Seabirds are facing challenges from all sides; plastic pollution and climate change, invasive species and habitat loss are all driving down population numbers. Many of us have seen the heart-breaking footage of albatross chicks dying from ingesting plastic, and of seabirds incubating their eggs whilst invasive rats eat away at their living bodies.

But none of these issues are as great a threat to their existence as the fishing industry.

The fishing industry is responsible for approximately 700,000 seabird deaths every year. Fishing boats and seabirds are after the same thing – fish – which means they often come into contact, putting the birds in grave danger. Drawn in by the prospects of an easy meal, the birds are killed in nets or by hooks whilst they forage for food. The birds of Bird Island aren’t exempt from the threat of fishing boats. The number of wanderer chicks on the island have seen steep declines in recent years, from 1,090 in 1990 to just 539 in 2019 due to parents being killed out at sea. Tackling this accidental capture of seabirds (bycatch) is vital in order to save this wonderful group of birds.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are teams around the world working hard to tackle the threats to seabirds and stop population decline in its tracks. In fact, we are already seeing promising progress; a couple of years ago 19 out of the 22 albatross species were facing extinction, and now the number is down to 15. When it comes to seabird bycatch, the Albatross Task Force, established in 2005 by the RSPB and BirdLife, has seen really exciting results from their work.

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The Albatross Task Force is an international team of seabird bycatch mitigation experts who aim to reduce seabird bycatch by 80% by working directly with the fishing industry. They work on board boats to show fishermen the simple but very effective mitigation techniques that prevent needless seabird deaths, and they work with governments to implement regulations on fishing vessels to avoid bycatch.

The ATF has seen huge progress in the fishing industry as a result of their work. South Africa is a fantastic success story of how collaboration with the fishing industry and proper use of mitigation techniques can impact bycatch rates. The South African fishery managed to reduce its seabird bycatch by a staggering 99%!

This and other success stories prove that it is entirely possible to save our wonderful seabirds. We know exactly what to do to stop seabird bycatch, so we are already halfway there! Seabird populations can bounce back when given the chance, and, with teams such as the ATF working tirelessly to give them this chance, there is hope for the birds that soar over earths seas.

To learn more, follow #AlbatrossStories and hear not only about the challenges the magnificent albatross face, but also how conservationists are striving to protect the birds and safeguard their future.