20 November, 2017

The populations of wandering, black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses have halved over the last 35 years on sub-antarctic Bird Island according to a new study published today (20 November) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research, led by scientists at British Antarctic Study (BAS), attributes this decline to environmental change, and to deaths in longline and trawl fisheries (known as bycatch).

Albatrosses are the world’s most threatened family of birds. There are 22 species; according to the IUCN Red List, 17 of these are ‘Threatened with extinction’ and the remaining five are considered to be ‘Near-threatened’. BAS scientists at Bird Island have been monitoring the populations since 1972.

BAS has been studying the wandering albatrosses on sub-Antarctic Bird Island since 1972 – photo credit: Adam Bradley

By analysing the breeding histories of more than 36,000 individually ringed albatrosses, researchers have found decreases in the survival rates of both adults and juveniles, causing serious declines in population growth rates with long-lasting effects.

Lead author Dr Deborah Pardo of the British Antarctic Survey, says:

“Our study shows that bycatch in fisheries and environmental change both contribute to reducing the survival rates of the birds. While we know population sizes were affected by bycatch from the mid 1990s, more recent climatic changes including stronger and more poleward winds, increased sea surface temperature and reduced sea ice have worsened the impacts.

We also found the grey-headed albatross population was particularly affected by the climatic event of El Niño, which coincided with increased fishing activity in their foraging areas . El Niño reduced the amount of food available so the birds probably switched to feeding on discards behind fishing vessels, increasing the number being hooked on longlines.”

Co-author Professor Richard Phillips of the British Antarctic Survey, says:

“This is the first comprehensive study at South Georgia and one of the few globally to examine the impacts of both climate change and fisheries on populations of long-lived seabirds. Identifying that bycatch is having a major impact on grey-headed albatrosses was unexpected, as mortalities of this species during setting of longlines are rarely recorded by observers on board fishing vessels. The results underline how important it is to improve fisheries management. Whilst BAS has worked with Commision for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to introduce measures that have effectively eliminated bycatch around South Georgia, evidence from our long-term monitoring shows that more  is needed elsewhere in the Southern Ocean to avoid the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of birds each year.”


Issued by the Press Office at British Antarctic Survey

Athena Dinar, Senior PR & Communications Manager, British Antarctic Survey, tel: +44 (0)1223 221 441; mobile: +44 (0)7909 008516; email: amdi@bas.ac.uk

For images and interview requests please contact the BAS Press Office as above.

Notes to editors

The three species of albatrosses which are monitored on Bird Island by British Antarctic Survey are classified on the IUCN Red List as Endangered (grey-headed albatross), Vulnerable (wandering albatross) and Near-threatened (black-browed albatross).

Currently on Bird Island there are: 700 pairs of wandering albatross, 3,000 pairs of grey-headed albatross and 7,000 pairs of black-browed albatross.

Understanding the dynamics of albatrosses at South Georgia is crucial as they are listed by the international Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) as three of the nine global Priority Populations for conservation.

Albatrosses are long-lived seabirds; the average lifespan is between 25 and 35 years, but individual birds can live to over 50 years.

Since 1972, breeding and non-breeding adults as well as chicks have been identified and ringed each year, and therefore high-quality demographic data are available to study the effects of age, sex, breeding status and year. Long-term monitoring allowed researchers to assess the population structure, breeding frequency, breeding success, and juvenile and adult survival rates of these three very long-lived albatross species in a changing environment.

This research highlights the importance of long-term monitoring data for understanding the impacts of fisheries. Despite the efforts to inform fisheries managers and operators, at present the regulations on seabird bycatch mitigation in many fisheries are not best-practice and are rarely enforced. In addition, foraging ranges of wandering albatrosses during breeding, and wandering, black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses during the nonbreeding season overlap with fisheries outside the Southern Ocean, increasing an individual’s risk of being killed. Changing global climate is also a major threat, as it affects prey availability and foraging efficiency.