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Gaining Federal Protection for the Black-Footed Albatross

A black-footed albatross.

A black-footed albatross.

NOAA Photo

What’s at Stake

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.


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, 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 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.

Earthjustice filed a petition to get the species protected under the Endangered Species Act. In October 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that listing the albatross might be warranted, but eventually declined to do so.

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