The albatross around our necks

Albatrosses. Source: Wikimedia CommonsAlbatrosses. Source: Wikimedia Commons

When you find out that an albatross can fly 10,000 miles in one journey and can fly for hours without even flapping its wings, it seems ironic that a bird which flies so freely has become a metaphor for a heavy burden one carries for one’s sins. We have the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge to thank for this who carved out the albatross’ allegorical role in the English language when he wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798). An albatross is following a ship, a sign of good luck in sailor superstition, only for it to be shot and killed by one of the mariners. This brings a curse of misfortune upon the ship, so the sailors force the trigger-happy mariner to wear the albatross around his neck as a cross to carry for his sin. In the end, the ship sinks and the only survivor is the albatross killer who is condemned to spend the rest of his days warning others of his fatal error.

The poem tells a good story but was perhaps a little ahead of its time. Many species of albatross are in slow, yet worrying, decline with twenty-one of them now on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List; the population of the largest species, the wandering albatross, has been found by BirdLife International to be declining at a rate of 4-5% a year. The existential threats faced by these birds are predominantly caused by humans so, if these trends are allowed to continue, humanity may well be taking the mariner’s position as the killer of the great bird. Instead of using a rifle, however, mankind’s weapon of choice is now longline fishing techniques, plastic pollution and invasive species introduction.

Longline fishing is a common commercial fishing technique, as it reliably catches deep-water fish and works with both small and large boats. It works by laying a main line with branch lines attached at intervals, each of which has a baited hook at the end; weights are added to the line to drag the structure of lines to the desired depth. The issue with this is that albatrosses are attracted to the baited hooks close to the surface before they have had time to sink. Tragically, the birds become ensnared and are drowned as they are dragged behind the ship and cannot fly – BirdLife International believes 100,000 albatrosses are killed this way every year.

It is safe to say that commercial fishing is the biggest threat to the albatross, so it is encouraging that plenty is being done about it. As part of their Save the Albatross campaign, BirdLife International is working with governments and fishing authorities to reduce the number of incidentally caught albatrosses. This includes setting the bait at night as albatrosses hunt exclusively during the day. Underwater line laying technology has been successfully tested as a means of keeping the baited hooks out of the reach of any albatross that might be looking for a snack and simple bird scaring streamers have been shown to be fairly effective at keeping them away.

However, this is not the only problem that requires solving. Invasive species have pushed some species of albatross to the brink of extinction. The Amsterdam albatross has suffered from the loss of cover at nesting sites due to grazing cattle on Amsterdam Island, and Tristan albatross chicks are preyed upon by house mice that were introduced to Gough Island. As the albatross has evolved to nest in places untouched by humans and pests, it has no defence against these issues. The only solution here is the careful stewardship of nesting sites which conservationists have succeeded with to some degree. In 2004, the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels was introduced and has been ratified by thirteen countries; it includes an obligation to remove invasive species from islands used for nesting as well as tackling other issues faced by the albatross.

One of these issues is one faced by nearly all ocean life – plastic pollution. Ingested plastic is impossible to digest and takes up space in the stomach and gizzard (an organ in the digestive tract used for grinding up food). This can starve the bird or reduce the nutrition they receive, increasing the probability of death by a different cause. As parents often regurgitate plastic back up for their chicks, this problem can be passed on generationally and increases the chance of the chick dying before fledging.

Some species of albatross are in dire need of help and protection but on the whole, the albatross still has a long time left before widespread extinction becomes an imminent threat. Mankind is not yet the mariner – but we might be in the future if the current issues faced by the albatross are ignored. The key to this puzzle is responsible fishing and reduced plastic waste, both of which are the focus of much environmental activism and regulation today, so there is reason for optimism that we will not wear the albatross around our neck as penance for our failure to protect it.