Friday, June 22, 2007

The Albatross: The 21st Century’s Canary in the Mine?

Thanks to the support of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the world –at-large is now more aware of the plight of the albatross.

By: Vanessa Uy

In our celebrity obsessed popular press, concern for animal welfare seldom make it to page two while the impact of human activity on rare and endangered species will be lucky to make it to page 14. But thanks to the support of HRH the Prince of Wales (a.k.a. Prince Charles) the world’s policy makers will be made more aware on the plight of the albatross. An orchestrated campaign was already set up to protect these endangered birds which about 100,000 are needlessly killed annually as a consequence of long line fishing. Also the “Save the Albatross” sailing race was held to spread awareness that the albatross-even in their home territory in the “roaring 40’s”- still need our help.

Biologically, albatross have comparable life span to humans. At 10 years, the albatross can breed. Their slow rate of reproduction at one chick every other year means that they cannot easily recover a population crash.

During the past few years, various researchers have noted a decline in albatross population. Ben Sullivan of Birdlife International notes that the census on albatross population decline over the past few years implies that someday the albatross will become extinct if current trends will continue.

One of the main culprits of the albatross population decline are the long line fishing boats that operate in the southern ocean i.e. "the roaring 40’s.” Equipped with lines up to 120 kilometers long and baited with thousands of fish- hooks. These serve as deathtraps to the albatross that are attracted to the bait. Unable to surface after being trapped, they drown by the thousands. The fishermen manning these vessels are concerned not only on the consequential reduction of catch quotas but also of the needless waste of albatross dying as a result. To avoid albatross by catch, long line fishing reforms such as the use of various mitigation measures like weighing the lines to allow it to sink quickly out of reach of the albatross. Streamers attached to the lines to scare away the albatross are also a success. Since the albatross are diurnal i.e. are active only during daylight ours, laying the lines after sundown are a good way of avoiding an albatross by catch.

Despite of the conservation efforts, albatross still continue to die needlessly due to “pirate fishing vessels.” These “pirate fishing vessels” flying under “flags of convenience”, were responsible for a quarter or more of annual albatross deaths. Currently, they are still very hard to catch/prosecute since albatross protection laws are only heavily enforced in South Georgia waters. Illegal unregulated fisheries (pirate fishermen) are killing the albatross as by catch with impunity.

One solution to stop this carnage is via consumer moral pressure. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) together with the consumers can exert moral pressure to our policymakers to make albatross protection legally binding like the “dolphin friendly tuna campaign” of the 1980’s. Under their mandate, the Marine Stewardship Council also monitors if a batch of fish that enters the market were taken from their point of origin in a sustainable manner.

The relationship between the albatross and mariners are “romanticized” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of an Ancient Mariner.” In the poem, a sailor kills an albatross. An act that later brought misfortune to the crew. In the 21st Century our concern for the welfare of the albatross goes beyond environmentalism, literary sentimentality or even superstition. This “canary in the mine” so to speak serves also to measure our humanity and on how civilized we are. Can all of us safely say that we are really more civilized today compared to when Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “The Rime of an Ancient Mariner” when it comes to taking stewardship of our planet? Will the albatross someday –like the dodo- only exist in humanity’s collective memory?

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