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Endangered albatross killed by Alaska commercial long-liner

Mike Campbell
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

An endangered short-tailed albatross, one of the world’s rarest birds, was accidentally killed last week in the hook-and-line commercial long-line cod fishery in the Bering Sea, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska.

The bird died Oct. 25. A leg band identified it as less than 2 years old and from a breeding colony in Japan. Torishima and Minami-kojima islands in Japan are the only active breeding colonies in the world, although single nests have been found at other sites, including Midway Island.  

The worldwide short-tailed albatross population, once numbering the millions, is down to some 3,500 birds, according to Kim Rivera, the national seabird coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

A majestic creature with a wingspan exceeding 7 feet, the albatross is the largest seabird in the North Pacific, including the Gulf of Alaska, the Bering Sea and along the Aleutian Islands. Its bubblegum pink bill distinguishes the short-tailed species from other albatross species. (New research by Japanese scientists suggests that albatross from the two Japanese nesting sites might actually be separate species.)

Because of the short-tailed albatross's protected status, the commercial groundfish fleet in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska operates under tight restrictions. Once four birds are killed during a two-year period, NMFS officials must meet with their counterparts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine what can be done to prevent further losses, potentially including restrictions on the fleet.  

The current two-year period began Sept. 16, and this is the first short-tailed albatross to perish. In the previous eight years, a maximum of two albatross deaths were recorded during any one period, said Melanie Brown from the NMFS office in Juneau. Those two came last August and September.

"The recent take just illustrates that some bycatch does occur," Rivera said. "It's a reminder we still have an issue. But fishermen don't like to catch birds, particularly endangered ones." 

Her boss emphasized continued vigilance.

"Hook-and-line vessel operators should be alert to the presence of short-tailed albatrosses in this area and fish with all due caution to avoid further incidental take of this endangered species," said Jim Balsiger, regional administrator for the Alaska region of NOAA Fisheries, in a press release.

Humans have long spelled trouble for short-tailed albatrosses. In the late 1880s and early 1900s, feather hunters clubbed to death an estimated 5 million birds, stopping only because the bird tottered on the edge of extinction. By the 1940s, fewer than 50 birds survived after volcanic eruptions wiped out the only active nesting site in Japan.

Although the population has rebounded, today's threats include ingesting plastic debris and drowning after getting hooked by commercial longline gear. Attracted by what they consider free food during commercial fishing operations, thousands of seabirds -- mainly northern fulmars and gulls -- are hooked each year in Alaska.

Still, Rivera said there are optimistic signs. Breeding pairs, which are intensely monitored in Japan, have increased tenfold in three decades, from 50 to 500.

"Japanese and American scientists visit every year," Rivera said. "They count the eggs laid and band the chicks before they're old enough to fly away. It's one of the best-monitored endangered populations in the world."

In longline operations, baited hooks attached to long lines are dropped into the water from the stern of the boat. The birds go for the baited hooks before the lines sink and are dragged underwater, where they drown.

"Thousands of miles of fishing lines, carrying hundreds of millions of hooks, are set by longliners throughout the world's oceans each year," says the advocacy group American Bird Conservancy. "Albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters and fulmars are killed when they become attracted to the bait as the lines are set, and either swallow the hooks or become snagged and pulled under."

"Fishing boat observers only witness a fraction of the actual bird bycatch that occurs in the fisheries of the North Pacific, so the documented death of even a single bird is cause for concern," Jessica Hardesty Norris, director of the conservancy's seabird program, told the website Treehugger in this story. Strategies used to keep birds away include a "bird-scaring" technique intended to keep them away while lines are being set.

More threatening than fishing is the fact that Torishima Island, where some three-quarters of the population breeds, is home to an active volcano.

Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com