Unless immediate action is taken, New Zealand’s Antipodean albatross is set to become functionally extinct.
Antipodean albatrosses only breed in New Zealand, on the Antipodean Islands 750km south-east of Dunedin. They have a three-metre wingspan and are known for their exceptional navigational and voyaging ability and spend most of their life at sea.
The population has declined from around 17,000 breeding birds in 2004 to 6,000 in 2019. This means around 800 breeding birds are dying each year. That’s approximately two a day on average.
The female population is being affected more severely than the males. Oceanic changes are thought to have driven the females to forage further north and east of New Zealand, pushing them into waters where they are at greater risk from international longline fishing fleets.
- Two thirds of the world’s breeding Antipodean albatrosses have died in the last fourteen years.
- Researchers believe the birds are dying as a result of becoming hooked on long lines set in the Pacific Ocean but clear data is needed on where they’re going and how they’re dying.
- This albatross is listed as ‘Nationally Critical’ by the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the highest threat classification.
- New Zealand is the ‘Seabird capital of the world’, more species of seabirds breed on our mainland and offshore islands than any other country in the world. The diversity of albatrosses NZ has is incredible – 13 species, head and shoulders above any other country.
- The recent MFE State of our Marine Environment 2019 shows that 90% of our native seabirds are threatened or at risk of extinction.
There are a number of initiatives that can help including putting satellite trackers on albatrosses which can pinpoint the exact location (within a few metres) of the bird in near real time.
The birds can be monitored via DOC’s albatross tracker app. Their flightpaths can be overlaid with the activity of individual fishing vessels using an interactive map developed by globalfishingwatch.org.
DOC researchers Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott have been studying these albatrosses for more than two decades and aim to understand the flight paths of these birds so governments, environmental interests and other influencers can work with the fleets most likely to be causing risk to these birds.
Graeme says “Year after year we see the same male albatrosses arriving at the colony and waiting by their nest for their dead partners to return. It’s heart wrenching to watch”.
There are three practices longline fishing vessels can use to avoid catching albatrosses; setting baited hooks at night when the birds are less active, adding weighted swivels near the hook to sink baited hooks quickly, and deploying a bird scaring line (tori line) above the point where baited hooks land in the water.
A new device called a hook pod has recently been developed, and this shields the barb of the hook until the hook has sunk beyond the diving depth of seabirds.
Three thousand long-liners are currently registered as fishing the Pacific Ocean, but only a portion of these will overlap with Antipodean albatrosses.
Regional fisheries management organisations regulate fishers on the high seas, and vessels fishing south of 30 ° South are required to use albatross safe fishing practices. But the plummeting population suggests not all vessels are doing what they should.
In essence, the urgent need is to reduce deaths of Antipodean albatross by fleets using fishing practices that keep them and other seabirds safe on high seas vessels.