11 Dec 2017

Plastic killed albatross chick on nest, bycatch a huge threat at sea

BBC documentary series Blue Planet 2 prompts Marine Conservationist and Photographer to explain why the tales of human impact are the scenes she won’t be forgetting, what else threatens the seabirds she's closest to, and what you can do in response to help

Wandering Albatross populations have halved in 35 years due to human activity © Steph Winnard
Wandering Albatross populations have halved in 35 years due to human activity © Steph Winnard / Prince Images
By Stephanie Winnard, International Marine Project Manager, BirdLife

Over the last few weeks in the UK, Blue Planet 2 has led us on an incredible journey of discovery. We’ve encountered bizarre and uncanny creatures from the deepest oceans. We’ve been astonished by previously unknown behaviours, including a particularly ingenious octopus who disguised itself with shells to evade a shark. And we’ve been provided with new nightmare fuel in the form of the voracious Bobbit worm… 

For me and many other viewers, the stories that linger longest are the ones showing the huge impact we humans have on our oceans. I will readily admit to being reduced to tears more than once watching the Pilot Whale mother cling to her dead calf (possibly been poisoned by her toxic milk), the sperm whale trying to eat a bucket... and the majestic Wandering Albatross chick killed by a plastic toothpick.

Albatrosses are one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world, with 14 of the 22 species facing extinction. So losing even a few from plastic pollution is really bad news.

South Georgia (a UK Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean) is over 800 miles from the nearest land, but plastic is still being found there.

Throughout the Pacific Ocean, albatross chicks are being brought up in nests made of plastic. They are also being fed huge amounts of this manmade polymer, which is mistaken for food by their parents – sometimes with devastating consequences. Something that must make us stop and think the next time we go to pick up a product in a supermarket.


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Wandering Albatross and chick on South Georgia © Steph Winnard / Prince Images


From discarded waste killing seabirds, to the build-up of microplastics in the marine food chain, the global problem of plastic is something that relies on every one of us making conscious decisions, everyday, with the solution seeming frustratingly distant. Yet not insurmountable, and we must all do much more to help.

Another threat facing albatrosses is huge, but thankfully we already have a working solution.

The threat of the longline

On South Georgia, the population of Wandering Albatross Diomedea exulans has halved over the last 35 years. The main cause of this decline has been interactions with the fishing industry. Birds flock to the boats in search of a free meal – but it can often be their last. It is estimated that around 100,000 albatrosses are killed every year by longline and trawl fisheries around the world, where they are hooked and drowned, or struck by trawler cables and dragged under the water.

This level of “bycatch” is hugely unsustainable for birds that can take up to 10 years to start breeding, and has led to worrying declines in albatross populations across the globe.  

That’s why, in 2005, BirdLife International and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK) set up the Albatross Task Force (ATF). This international collaboration sends dedicated instructors out to work directly with fishermen in South America and Southern Africa, teaching them simple ways to avoid accidentally killing albatross. 

Measures such as fishing at night when birds are less active, weighting lines so they sink faster, and using bird scaring lines to keep birds out of danger areas are all extremely effective.


A Black-browed Albatross lunges for bait on a longline hook © Fabiano Peppes, Albatross Task Force Instructor


Albatross Task Force: a solution to bycatch

The ATF have been focusing their efforts on the ten worst albatross bycatch “hotspots”, and have had some huge successes.

Highlights include reducing albatross bycatch by 99% in South Africa’s demersal (deep sea) trawl fleet, getting regulations introduced to protect seabirds in nine out of ten of the hotspot fisheries, and developing entirely new ways of stopping birds being killed in nets. You can find out more about our work in our annual report.

Despite this success, there is still much work be done to ensure that reductions in bycatch are sustained into the future. The ATF are still working closely with the fishing industry in many countries to ensure that albatrosses are kept off the hook.


Stop and think: plastic

This week, BirdLife International honours the hard work of the ATF by releasing a special albatross t-shirt design. It's now available in our online shop to raise awareness of this issue, with the anti-bycatch message emblazoned across the wearer’s chest. All proceeds from merchandise sales go towards BirdLife’s work.

Of course, the t-shirt is made from fully-traceable organic cotton. Rapanui Clothing / Teemill, who provide the t-shirts are a sustainable eco-fashion brand who chose from the outset not to use polyester in their products. “A recent report by the Ellen MacArthur foundation", explains Rapanui co-founder Rob Drake-Knight,

"Showed that around half a million tonnes of microfibre plastics enter our marine ecosystems each year through washing synthetic clothes. That’s why we use natural fibres like Organic Cotton at Teemill.”

Click to get the new campaign t-shirt (women's tops also available)

Another way you can help the Albatross Task Force is by sending your stamps to the RSPB. Each individual stamp has a very small value, but selling them to collectors in bulk to raises considerable funds for our vital work. Last year over £20,000 was raised from stamps alone. Find out how to send your stamps in here.

BirdLife International and the RSPB have been working in collaboration with British Antarctic Survey, the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands to conserve the albatross. A new first-day cover set of albatross stamps has been produced to raise funds. These new stamps are available to buy from the RSPB’s ebay store here

So there are many ways you can support the Albatross Task Force – without contributing to the pervasive problem of plastic pollution.

Steph's photos can be found at www.princeimages.co.uk