The Times January 10, 2006
The plight of the albatross
By Edward Gorman
A good south wind sprung up behind; the Albatross did follow, and every
day, for food or play, came to the mariners’ hollo! Rime of the Ancient
Mariner — Samuel Taylor Coleridge
IT TAKES a lot to impress Dame Ellen MacArthur. But the sight of a bird
landing at her feet has done just that.
With feats of endurance to rival those of the single-handed,
round-the-world sailor, the albatross, a frequent companion on Dame
Ellen’s record-breaking expeditions, left her awestruck as she stood on
a rocky hillside on Albatross Island at the start of a campaign to save
For despite its size — wingspans are often more than 12ft — and amazing
flying ability — up to 50,000 miles without landing — this giant of the
seas is in danger of extinction from the use of deadly long-line
“I think they are the most amazing birds I’ve ever been lucky enough to
see,” Dame Ellen told The Times yesterday. “Just seeing them here and
seeing how affectionate they are with each other and how huge they are
is incredible. It’s like a bomber flying over, they are so big.”
But of the 21 different species, 19 are under threat. An estimated
100,000 of the birds are killed each year by long-line fishing, a rate
of one bird every five minutes. Two species, the Amsterdam and Chatham
albatrosses, are critically endangered. Seven more species have
endangered status and ten are classified as vulnerable.
Dame Ellen’s determination to stop the slaughter has led her to the
Southern Ocean to make a film and to help to carry out a survey of bird
numbers on behalf of the Save the Albatross Campaign run by Birdlife
It is an area where bird populations have halved in the past 20 years,
a catastrophic fall for a slow-breeding bird. Many species lay just one
egg every two years.
The main cause of the population crash has been long-line fishing in
which fishermen trail baited hooks from lines strung out for miles
behind their ships.
Albatrosses and other seabirds dive down to snatch the bait before it
can sink and get caught on the hooks. Unable to fly away, they drown.
During her walks around Albatross Island, Dame Ellen and Sally Poncet,
a biologist, found no trace of humans apart from two four-inch fishing
hooks that two birds had regurgitated.
“The only thing we have discovered which did not originate here are the
barbed fish hooks,” wrote Ms Poncet in a message to her website.
“Little could highlight more how these birds are so vulnerable.”
The albatross is particularly at risk because it lives up to 60 years
of age and only breeds once it is fully mature, which can take up to 12
years. The birds only produce one chick at a time, and some species
only breed every second year. The key to saving them is educating
fishermen, many of whom are from Asia, where tuna fetches big prices
for the sushi market, about methods of fishing that will not threaten
the birds. These include working only at night and using streamers
either side of the fishing lines to act as scarers.
Richard Thomas, a spokesman for Birdlife International, said the
campaign was gradually bearing fruit but it will be a long haul. “I
think we will turn it round but it’s going to take years for numbers to
increase — literally 200 years, something like that,” he said.
Dame Ellen is due to tour Asia with her round-the-world record-breaking
trimaran B&Q when she returns. “When I get back I am going to meet up
and discuss what could happen in an international sense,” she said.
“The organisations already in place are doing a huge amount to make a
difference and I came down here with the specific aim of making a
programme to raise more awareness of the project.”
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