A seabird's amazing journey back from near extinction

Last week staff from Audubon California, Audubon Alaska and Portland Audubon attended and presented at the first-ever World Seabird Conference, in Victoria, British Columbia. The news from around the world on the status of seabirds is both sobering and inspiring. Overall, seabirds are continuing to decline due to a number of human-induced factors.

Yet,  seabirds' special combination of attributes – high adult survival, tendency to breed at oceanic islands, and adaptability to dynamic ocean conditions – make them highly responsive to conservation action. The conference was peppered with wonderful tales of what can happen when a small group of determined people decide it is unacceptable to allow a seabird species to go extinct.

A great example is the multinational collaboration to rescue the Short-tailed Albatross. This is the largest seabird in the North Pacific, with a wingspan of over seven feet and a distinctive bubblegum-pink bill. Until the early 1900’s, it was the most abundant albatross in the North Pacific, numbering in the millions and common in California nearshore waters and Native American middens. The breeding colony stronghold has always been islands in the western Pacific south of Japan.

Around the turn of the century albatrosses were clubbed to death in huge numbers at their breeding islands for feathers, fat and meat. By 1949, there were no albatrosses at any of the breeding islands and the species was presumed extinct, another tragic consequence of human shortsightedness.

In 1950, however, something amazing happened. A worker on the island spotted a few albatrosses from his vantage point at the weather station. It appears that a few young birds had been wandering the Pacific as the last of their colony-attending relatives were clubbed to death on Torishima. Now they were coming home to an island free of hunters. By 1954, there were 25 birds and at least 6 pairs. With this precarious start the future of the species took a 180-degree turn … because people suddenly became protectors rather than destroyers of the species.

From the 1950’s onward, Japan took a number of steps to protect the albatross and its breeding islands, and in 2000, it was listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Quickly, a tri-national Recovery Team was formed and produced a Recovery Plan. A central goal of the Recovery Plan is to establish a new colony away from Torishima Island, which is actively volcanic. The team chose the historic breeding island of Mukojima, 250 km from Torishima, for the new colony site.

For several years team members practiced translocating albatross chicks using the much more common Laysan Albatross from Hawaii, working out kinks until they felt ready to handle Short-tailed chicks, each of which is precious to the future of the species.

Short-tailed Albatross chick at its new island home

Recovery Team members at the World Seabird Conference last weekend described the incredible success of the translocation effort: of 40 chicks moved and hand-fed by the team, 39 survived to fledge, and satellite-tagged individuals are behaving normally at sea, foraging in the same areas as wild-reared counterparts. This is a huge positive step toward the recovery of the species, further improved by the high overall rate of breeding success at all sites.

The species still faces significant threats: volcanic activity at its central breeding island; mortality from fisheries especially longlining, invasive species at breeding islands, and more. But there are tools to counteract these threats. In addition to the work of the Recovery Team, U.S. fishing fleets voluntarily adopted changes in fishing gear that reduce albatross bycatch almost to zero. Audubon is involved: we are working with the American Bird Conservancy to secure U.S. adoption of the Agreement to Conserve Albatrosses and Petrels, an international agreement that brings countries together to share tools and incentives for protecting the Short-tailed Albatross and other species. We are also identifying marine Important Bird Areas where albatrosses congregate to feed in Alaska and Canada, which we will use as a framework for advocacy.

With continued determination on the part of advocates and scientists, and some luck, Short-tailed Albatrosses will again become abundant and commonly seen from California's coastline.

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