Top award goes to program saving albatrosses

Photo of short-tailed albatross by Ron LeValley. Mendocino Coast, 2012.

Earlier this month, NOAA Fisheries, which shares responsibility for protecting our seabirds, and other partners including Dr. Ed Melvin at Washington Sea Grant, won the 2015 Presidential Migratory Bird Federal Stewardship Award recognizing a very successful program to save albatrosses and other seabirds.  The award is based on the passage of important new federal regulations designed to protect the critically endangered short-tailed albatross, as well as the black-footed and Laysan albatross and other seabirds.  The regulations, requiring larger vessels to use bird-scaring streamer lines and other techniques in order to keep birds from becoming hooked and drowning on longlines, are a major step forward in securing the future of these beautiful seabirds.

The short-tailed albatross is one of the most dramatic success stories in the history of conservation, and has been a key driver of the new regulations.  These albatrosses with bubble-gum-pink bills once numbered in the millions and were common in nearshore waters in California and Oregon. By 1949 direct persecution on breeding islands in Japan had reduced the species to a mere handful of birds. In the 1950’s they  failed to appear at their breeding islands and were presumed extinct. A few years later, a handful of albatrosses turned up and the Japanese government took rapid steps to protect these individuals and their colonies. In 2000 the species was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. and a tri-national Recovery Team produced and began implementing a Recovery Plan.

By the 1990’s there were 1000 individuals; today, there are about 4000. This turnaround is a testament to the power of the Endangered Species Act to support and inspire collaborative and effective conservation activities.

Seabird bycatch in longline fisheries is one of the most important threats to albatrosses and is a primary reason that most of the world’s 22 albatross species are threatened with extinction. Albatrosses ply the shelf breaks off our west coast, searching for squid, fish eggs, and fish parts, and are attracted to fishing vessels where they are caught on hooks and are drowned. Albatrosses are slow to reproduce and the loss of adult birds is a big reason they are one of the world's most endangered groups of birds.

Fortunately, there are low-cost, effective means to keep albatrosses off of fishhooks.  Streamer lines consist of a long piece of rope with strands of orange tubing suspended every 5 meters that hang down to the water’s surface. Fishermen deploy the streamer lines from the stern of longline fishing vessels along with the line of baited hooks. Streamer lines are attached to a high point on the back deck of the vessel, extend back to cover and protect the area where the baited hooks are sinking, and prevent seabirds from getting hooked or entangled. These and similar techniques were developed in large part by Dr. Ed Melvin, a true conservation hero, and were put  in place in Alaska years ago where they have proven spectacularly effective, reducing short-tailed and Laysan albatross bycatch from substantial, to nearly zero.

(Dr. Ed Melvin, seabird hero, surrounded by albatrosses)

In 2011, a short-tailed albatross was killed by a longline off of Oregon. Federal fisheries and wildlife managers quickly initiated consultation under the Endangered Species Act. The subsequent regulations put in place were the result of much hard and good work on the part of scientists, agency managers and fishermen to identify and put into place the best avoidance gear and approaches for using streamer lines in the west coast longline fleet. With continued collaborative efforts to reduce fisheries bycatch, protect breeding islands, and secure sufficient food resources, future generations will enjoy this magnificent seabird.

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