13 January, 2005

Albatrosses are the world’s most threatened family of birds. New research offers the first hope of identifying migration and feeding patterns to reduce their unnecessary slaughter by long-line fisheries. The study is reported in the journal Science, and outlines, for the first time, the year-round habitat of the grey-headed albatross.

Leading author Professor John Croxall from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) said, “By understanding where these birds go when they’re not breeding, we can brief governments and fisheries commissions to impose much stricter measures capable of reducing the number of birds killed by 75-95%, depending on the type of fishery“.

By attaching tiny logging devices (geo-locators) to the bird’s leg for 18 months or more, scientists at BAS found that most birds travelled from their breeding site off the coast of South Georgia to areas of the southwest Indian Ocean. Over half then made amazing round-the-world journeys – the fastest in just 46 days.

Knowing where the albatrosses will interact with fishing vessels provides governments and fisheries commissions with accurate information to stop the killing of these charismatic birds. The right combination of measures will drastically reduce deaths.”

Issued by the British Antarctic Survey Press Office.

Athena Dinar – tel: ++44 1223 221414, mob:07740 822229, email: a.dinar@bas.ac.uk
Linda Capper – tel: ++44 1223 221448, mob: 07714 233744, email: l.capper@bas.ac.uk

Picture Editors: Stills and footage of albatrosses, light-level loggers, effects of long-line fisheries on albatrosses and general Antarctic scenery are available from the BAS Press Office as above.

Global circumnavigations: Tracking year-round ranges of non-breeding albatrosses by John P. Croxall, Janet R.D. Silk, Richard A. Phillips, Vsevolod Afanasyev and Dirk Briggs is published in Science on 14 January 2005.

Before this study, there was no knowledge at all of grey-headed albatross wintering habitat. There were only a few reports of birds being found with leg rings in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. BAS scientists were very surprised to find that this species travelled so far and stayed out in the high seas so long. With over half the birds making global circumnavigations (three birds twice), this may prove to be the most migratory of all albatrosses.

BirdLife International, supported by the RSPB has a ‘Save the Albatross Campaign: Keeping the World’s Seabirds off the Hook’. The Campaign addresses the drowning of countless albatrosses and petrels every year on long-line hooks, threatening some species with extinction. Within the albatrosses, 19 of 21 taxa are on the IUCN Red List as globally threatened.

The Prince of Wales is a keen advocate of this campaign and has sent a letter of support for the project.

Estimates suggest that 300,000 seabirds are killed annually in the world’s long-line fisheries. Since 2001, by-catch rates in well-regulated fisheries have decreased substantially, remained stable in less well-regulated ones and probably increased in pirate fisheries, for which no real data exist.

The round-the-world distance travelled by one of the birds in 46 days was at least 22,000 km. As the loggers only provide two positions per day an accurate estimate of the distance is impossible but it is likely to be considerably more than this minimum distance. The tiny light loggers (geo-locators) have been developed by engineers at BAS and are attached to a band on the leg. These record light levels, making it straightforward to determine times of sunset and sunrise. Using standard astronomical equations, latitude is predicted from day length and longitude from the time of local midday with respect to GMT (via an onboard clock).

British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in research into global issues in an Antarctic context. It is the UK’s national operator and is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. It has an annual budget of around ?40 million, runs nine research programmes and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica.