In an effort to head off the extinction of the black-footed albatross, environmentalists filed a petition with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the species under the Endangered Species Act. The recent reopening of the Hawaii-based longline fishery for swordfish will likely result in the drowning deaths of several thousand black-footed albatross each year.
"Unless we act now, longlining will cause the extinction of the black-footed albatross. The action we took today begins the process of getting the bird listed under the Endangered Species Act, which will protect the species far better than relying on the good will of the fishing industry," said Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice attorney representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, the two petitioning organizations. Achitoff added, "Unfortunately, we have seen too little good will and too many dead albatross."
The black-footed albatross, a seabird that nests almost exclusively in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, with a small population nesting in Japan, 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. The birds also forage along the western coast of the United States.
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.
Albatross play an important role not only in marine biodiversity, but Hawaiian culture as well.
While the most serious current threat to the species comes when the birds become entangled and drown when they go after the baited hooks set by the industrial longline fishing industry to catch swordfish and tuna, the bird's population was decimated in the early 20th century by hunters who shot the birds for their plumes, eliminating the species from many nesting islands throughout the Pacific.
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 unless actions are taken to reduce the current level of human-caused mortality, the species will likely go extinct in the coming decades. As many as 14,000 black-footed albatross are estimated killed by longline fishing each year.
Globally, nineteen of the twenty-one recognized albatross species are considered threatened with extinction. In each case, a primary threat is longline fishing. "The international longline industry is setting nearly 10 billion baited hooks a year, killing over 300,000 seabirds each year. Albatross populations simply cannot withstand these levels of mortality," said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Solutions exist to help keep significant numbers of albatross off the deadly hooks, but the longline fishery has been, at best, slow to adopt them," he continued.
Albatross and other sea 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 Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council has urged that the most effective measures be voluntary.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island, and Earthjustice have been working to reduce the impacts of longline fishing on a number of marine species, including endangered sea turtles, marlin, whales and dolphins. More than 600 of the world's most prominent scientists have called on the United Nations to declare a moratorium on pelagic longlining to prevent the extinction of the Pacific leatherback and other species. Current studies estimate that longline fishing in the Pacific alone captures more than three millions 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."
Photo credit: Bradford Keitt