Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Off again and some albatross stories

Off south again on Friday, for a month on the ship around South Georgia and then a fortnight at Rothera, our base on the Antarctic Peninsula. Between these I have a fortnight on Falklands, hopefully allowing for some holiday time on the outer islands. is a set of photos from Falklands – if I can get anywhere near close to matching them I’ll be happy.

While being at sea is great, it has to be said that the variety of things to see isn’t too wide. One thing we do have with us are the albatrosses. There are still plenty of them but numbers are declining due to bycatch from long-lining fishing. Fortunately this is a problem that has been identified and solutions found. The main solution is to simply tow coloured plastic lines behind fishing boats to keep the birds away from the areas where they can reach the bait on the hooks. Other methods that help are thawing the bait first to make it sink faster, dying it blue to put the birds off and setting lines at night where possible. These methods have reduced bycatch around South Georgia to almost zero and have cut bycatch in areas such as South Africa by around 90%. Huge credit has to go to the Albatross Task Force, the governments and equally the fishermen themselves for implementing these measures. This is a problem with a solution, the process of implementing that solution is ongoing but the stories of co-operation are very encouraging. Hopefully the declines can be halted while there are still healthy populations and numbers can soon recover. See

Another threat that seabirds face is from plastic pollution. Thankfully this is very limited in the Southern Ocean as the water largely goes around Antarctica, away from major sources of waste. The North Pacific is a very different matter however with plastic coming in from Japan, China and the US. The water in the North Pacific, like that of all ocean basins that are bounded by continents to the east and west, spins round in a big gyre before sinking in the middle. This concentrates the plastic, which floats, into the Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where plastic is far more common that life of any form. There are three species of albatross there. The Short-tailed Albatross was once very numerous but they were killed for their feathers, possibly up to 10 million birds being processed on an industrial scale. Just after WWII no breeding birds were known and the species was considered extinct. Thankfully 50 birds survived at sea and started breeding again on Torishima, with the first nest of the recolonisation being found in 1954. Torishima is however an active volcano so the population still isn’t safe. Efforts are being made to translocate juveniles to other islands (they have naturally colonised another island) and encourage breeding on Hawaiian islands, with some success. The population is increasing and there are nests on Midway and Kure Atoll this year. However birds in the North Pacific are at huge risk from plastic pollution. These photos, of Black-footed Albatross chicks, tell their own gruesome story:

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