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Despite two recent bird deaths, the short-tailed albatross is rebounding

September 30, 2010 |  1:15 pm

ANCHORAGE — Fishermen harvesting Pacific cod in the Bering Sea saw a rare sight over the past month: two short-tailed albatrosses, spotted on different days in different places.

The bad news: The critically endangered birds were dead, entangled in fishing gear and drowned. They had fallen victim to what is a fatal attraction for some seabirds -- the lure of tasty bait on a fast-descending industrial fishing line.

The good news: The loss of two birds is not the blow it would have been a decade ago, when the population was only in the hundreds and the loss of four in two consecutive seasons could have triggered fishery shutdowns under the Endangered Species Act.

Recent data suggest the population, now estimated at 3,000, has been increasing at a rate of 7.5% a year, said Kim Rivera, seabird coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Alaska.

Rivera said it was her sense that the deaths of the two birds did not represent an impact on the population.

Still, the bird deaths, reported on Aug. 27 and Sept. 14, were a setback after 12 years in which no short-tailed albatrosses had reportedly been killed in Alaska fisheries, she said.

Almost all the world's short-tailed albatrosses nest on a rocky Japanese island called Torishima. There, a simmering volcano could wipe out their slope-side breeding grounds.

But an international program spanning the Pacific has helped boost numbers from the remnant population of a couple dozen at Torishima in the 1950s.

On that island, Japanese and U.S. scientists have embarked on a laborious project using decoys, recorded cow-like albatross calls and field kitchens to move small numbers of newborn chicks each spring to safer ground.

In the first years of the program, scientists moved the chicks to a different site on the island. More recently, they have brought them to a separate island, Mukojima.

The relocated chicks, hand-fed by scientists, have grown to fly over the North Pacific and Bering Sea; the hope is that they will return to Mukojima to maintain the new colony.

A separate program is in place in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska -- 3,000 miles to the east -- where adult and juvenile albatrosses spend years soaring, swimming and foraging for food before returning to Torishima to raise new hatchlings.

RULES FOR FISHERMEN

In Alaska, fishermen must follow certain procedures to prevent bird entanglements. Central to the protections is the mandated use of bright plastic streamer lines that shoo birds away from bait-laden fishing lines. The devices have proved highly successful.

Until the birds were snared last month, there had been no short-tailed albatross deaths in Alaska fisheries since 1998.

Other birds benefit as well. Total seabird deaths from mishaps with all commercial fishing gear averaged more than 13,000 a year from 1993 to 2004 in Alaska waters. It declined by nearly 70% once the bird-avoidance devices were required starting in 2004, according to NMFS.

Environmentalists are working to expand the fisheries protections. In the Russian Far East, the World Wide Fund for Animals helped set up local manufacturing of streamer lines and has posted scientists as seabird observers on fishing vessels.

The albatross, with its wingspan and long-distance flights, holds special significance to many. And the short-tailed species claims legendary status for its survival saga.

The birds are estimated to have numbered 5 million in the late 19th century. Then hunters converged on Torishima and mowed them down assembly line-style for their feathers.

By the mid-20th century, the short-tailed albatross was thought to have been eliminated entirely. But a tiny remnant did survive once commercial hunts were banned.

Short-tailed albatrosses were making their way back from the brink in 1990 when naturalist and wildlife guide Peter Harrison made what he calls the "pilgrimage" to Torishima.

He was one of the first non-Japanese observers to see a short-tailed albatross in the last 50 years, an experience he considers life-changing.

"Fifteen years ago, if you saw one, birdwatchers would hug each other and some people would burst into tears," said Harrison, who is based in Port Townsend, Wash.

RELATED BIRD CONSERVATION NEWS:
New proposal could bring endangered whooping cranes back to their old Louisiana stomping grounds
Turkey and Syria's improved relations may help the critically endangered northern bald ibis

-- Yereth Rosen, Reuters

Video: A short-tailed albatross at Midway Atoll. Credit: naturefinder via YouTube

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