A brighter future for short-tailed albatross

On Saturday federal fisheries managers adopted an important new set of regulations designed to prevent the deaths of critically endangered short-tailed albatross and other seabirds in west coast fisheries. The regulations, requiring larger vessels to use bird-scaring streamer lines and other techniques in order to keep albatrosses from becoming hooked and drowning on longlines, are a major step forward in securing the future of this beautiful seabird. (Photo by Ron LeValley, Mendocino Coast, 2012)

Short-tailed albatrosses are one of the most dramatic success stories in the history of conservation. Once numbering in the millions, and common in nearshore waters in California and Oregon, by 1949 persecution had reduced the species to a mere handful of birds. In the 1950’s, after they failed to appear at all at their breeding islands, short-tailed albatrosses were presumed extinct. A few years later, a handful of albatrosses turned up at their Japanese breeding islands, 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. 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. Fortunately, there are low-cost, effective means to keep albatrosses off of fishhooks. Streamer lines scare birds away from bait and hooks  long enough for the hooks to sink. These techniques were put  in place in Alaska years ago, and have proven spectacularly effective, reducing short-tailed and Laysan albatross bycatch from substantial, to nearly zero.

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 regulations passed yesterday are a 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.

Audubon spoke at Saturday's meeting in support of the new regulations, which will be released for public review and comment early in 2014. We also reminded managers that the job is not finished, urging them to keep moving forward in the process to eliminate albatross bycatch in the west coast fisheries. This will require finalizing a rough-weather exemption that ensures the safety of fishermen while best protecting birds, and, putting into place streamer line requirements for smaller vessels. 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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