The black-footed albatross, which nests in the northwest Hawaiian Islands, forages across the North Pacific and is frequently seen off the California and Oregon coasts, is threatened by drowning in longline fisheries targeting swordfish and tuna. Globally, 19 of the approximately 21 recognized albatross species are considered threatened with extinction.
"Longline fishing has been a global catastrophe for albatross species," said Brendan Cummings, ocean program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. "Unless we rein in longline fishing we stand to lose not just the black-footed albatross but virtually every albatross species on Earth."
Longline fishing, carried out by setting thousands of hooks from a line upwards of 60 miles in length, drowns more than 300,000 seabirds each year. Albatross and other birds dive at the baited hooks as they are deployed, become hooked, and are dragged underwater, where they drown. Various methods have been devised to scare the birds away or to make the hooks sink faster, decreasing the number of birds killed. Yet most fishing vessels are not using these techniques.
The world experts on the status of seabirds, BirdLife International and the World Conservation Union, have recently concluded that the black-footed albatross should be classified as endangered. Scientists estimate that only about 60,000 nesting pairs survive today, and that the current level of human-caused mortality is unsustainable.
Albatross mortality dropped significantly when the Hawaii-based longline fishery for swordfish was temporarily shut down to reduce sea turtle bycatch. Federal officials are currently considering proposals to greatly expand this fishery.
"If we want to save the black-footed albatross we need to better regulate Hawaii's longline fisheries, not expand them," said Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice attorney in Honolulu. "Unfortunately, the federal government seems determined to drive not just the albatross but also our sea turtles to extinction."
The black-footed albatross has a wingspan extending over six feet and spends much of its life on the wing, scooping flying fish eggs, squid, and fish from the ocean surface. Black-footed albatross are fairly long-lived birds that have evolved a successful life history somewhat analogous to humans. They mate for life, lay only one egg per year, and if one of the pair dies, it can take three or more years before the living partner finds another mate and begins to reproduce again. These life-history traits make them highly susceptible to extinction when animals of reproductive age are killed.
Current studies estimate that longline fishing in the Pacific alone captures more than 3 million sharks, 40,000 sea turtles, and tens of thousands of seabirds in its quest for large fish.
"Solving the problem for seabirds must be done immediately, but as long as we allow longliners to deploy billions of hooks every year, indiscriminately hooking marine wildlife species by the millions, our oceans won't be safe," said Todd Steiner of Turtle Island Restoration Network. "If we don't act soon, longline fishing will empty our oceans and our skies."