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Modern mariners threaten albatross with extinction

12th Mar 2003


The Scotsman

CERTAIN species of albatross could be extinct within ten years unless fishing fleets change their practices, conservationists warned yesterday.

More than 100,000 birds each year are snared and drowned as they try to eat the bait from long lines of hooks towed by vessels, experts said.

An assessment of the albatross’s plight will be made at a scientific meeting at the Zoological Society of London today by Professor John Croxall, of the British Antarctic Survey.

Richard Thomas, a spokesman for BirdLife International, the global bird conservation organisation, said his group started a campaign in 2000 to save the albatross and introduce new fishing regulations.

He said: "We need to take simple measures to help safeguard these birds, which are being killed at the rate of at least 100,000 a year."

New Zealand and Australia have already signed and ratified the BirdLife-supported agreement for the conservation of the albatross and the petrel .

Fishing measures proposed under the agreement include deploying lines at night when the birds do not feed, adding weights to them so they sink out of reach and dyeing the bait bright blue.

Mr Thomas added: "The fleets lose a significant proportion of their bait to seabirds so it would be in their interest to do it.

"The real problem we’ve got is a very significant proportion of birds are being caught by illegal fishing boats operating outside national and international laws. The question is getting them to follow these measures."

Little did he know it at the time, but Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lyrical ballad, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, may soon be judged as a prophetic work unless urgent action is taken.

Just as the massive and wandering sea bird was presented as a central metaphor of hope and omen of good in the Romantic poet’s most famous work, its needless slaughter by the mariner also progresses to tell a tale of man’s guilt and the destruction of nature.

Out of 21 species of the bird, 15 are considered endangered, with two, the Amsterdam albatross, with a world population of 90, and the Chatham albatross with between 10,000 and 11,000 birds.

They are listed as critically endangered, which means that the birds have a 50 per cent chance of being extinct in ten years.

The albatross is the world’s largest bird in terms of its wingspan, which can measure 11ft. It mates for life and has a similar life-span to humans - most live for 60 years but some have been known to live to be 80.

Japanese long-line fleets operating in New Zealand waters under the country’s rules have cut the number of seabirds caught from 4,000, between October 2000 and September 2001, to 12, Mr Thomas said.