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Reef Report for Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Albatross Migration Contest Highlights Worldwide Decline in Populations

A very unique race involving wild Albatross has had a dark ending, but with a possible bright spot, as it has highlighted the worldwide decline of nearly all species of Albatross.

The race itself, now in its second year, after a very successful race in 2004, was a unique combination of science, technology and business. © BirdLife International Sponsored by Ladbrokes , a UK-based online betting website, with the noble intent of raising awareness of the plight of albatross species, and funds for BirdLife International to assist in the conservation of albatross species worldwide.

Scientists placed small tags on 17 Tasmanian Shy Albatross chicks, as they sat in their nests on three small islands off the coast of Tasmania. These tags enabled satellites to pinpoint the movements of each individual albatross once they left the nest.

These young birds follow a cycle of movement that takes them thousands of miles from their nest, across the southern oceans to South America, Africa, and even North America. They do not return to their home island for three years. For the purpose of the race, a finish line (a line of longitude) was set in Africa, marking a long 6000-mile first leg of this three-rear juvenille migration.

Tragically, none of the 17 birds survived this first leg of the migration, with only one making it to Australia’s East coast from Tasmania.

This death rate is tragic, but in many ways highlights the threats that the 22 species of Albatross face. Nearly all of these species are classified as threatened or endangered with extinction, and most of them have had their populations decline by half or more over the past three 75 years, including some with worrying declines in numbers over the past ten years.

It is not known yet what caused the deaths of these 17 racing birds, although the fact that many species of seabirds have had poor breeding seasons along Australia’s southern coast points to low stocks of the food fish that they all feed on as being a cause.

Albatross species worldwide are severely affected by long-line fishing activities. Long-line fishing boats sting out miles-long lines of baited hooks. In the process of setting these lines, the baited hooks are near the surface and seabirds of all sorts, including albatross, dive at the baits, are hooked, dragged underwater, and drown. The toll is huge, with upwards of 300,000 seabirds being killed each year.

Because an albatross take 3 years to grow to maturity, and once mature only lay a single egg each year, their populations do not recover easily from increased death rates.

Research has shown many simple solutions are possible to reduce long-line fishing deaths. Placing the bait lines at night, (when birds are not active), using devices that keep the long lines off the surface of the water, even something as simple as freezing the bait so that it sinks faster, or dying the bait blue so that birds are not attracted to it can all significantly reduce deaths to seabirds caused by longline fishing operations. Still, it appears that most long line operations are not adopting these techniques, the result being that many scientists are calling for banishing longline fishing altogether.

Follow the links below, as they provide much more information on this race, albatross species, and longline fishing.

The Big Bird Race background information.

Background information on albatross and longline fishing.

Status of all 21 Albatross Species.

Another different satellite tracking study on albatross migration.

(C) DiveTheReef The weekly reef report is written by Joel Groberg of DiveTheReef.com, who compiles them from the many conversations he has with dive staff in the area, as well as  many other local sources in the dive community.

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