HONOLULU, Hawaii, October 9, 2007 (ENS) – Today the federal government began a formal review to determine if the black-footed albatross should receive the protections of the Endangered Species Act. This albatross is already classified as globally Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The announcement, published in the Federal Register, comes in response to a petition filed in 2004 by the environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network.
The black-footed albatross, Phoebastria nigripes, nests in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Midway Atoll has the second largest population in the world.
With a wingspan extending over six feet, the black-footed albatross spends much of its life on the wing, scooping flying fish eggs, squid, and fish from the ocean surface. They forage across the North Pacific and are frequently seen off the California and Oregon coasts.
Like all albatrosses, this species is threatened by drowning in longline fisheries targeting swordfish and tuna. Globally, 19 of the 21 recognized albatross species are considered threatened.
“Longline fishing has been a global catastrophe for albatross species,” said Brendan Cummings, ocean program director with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“Unless we rein in longline fishing,” he said, “we stand to lose not just the black-footed albatross but virtually every albatross species on Earth.”
Longline fishing, carried out by setting thousands of hooks from a line upwards of 60 miles in length, drowns more than 300,000 seabirds each year. Albatross and other birds dive at the baited hooks as they are deployed, become hooked, and are dragged underwater, where they drown.
Various methods have been devised to scare the birds away or to make the hooks sink faster, decreasing the number of birds killed. Yet most fishing vessels are not using these techniques, Cummings says.
“The health of this majestic seabird is a concern for all of us who care about marine ecosystems,” said Patrick Leonard, field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Islands Office. “Our next step in the process is to initiate a status review of the species followed by a 12-month finding to determine if listing is actually warranted.”
The 12 month review will evaluate the effects of commercial longline fisheries. The Fish and Wildlife Service points to published models of incidental mortality of black-footed albatross in fisheries that indicate as much as five percent of the population may be killed in longline fishery operations annually.
Levels of mercury and organochlorine contaminants such as PCBs and DDT have been shown to be higher in North Pacific albatrosses than in species in the southern hemisphere, and these contaminant concentrations are higher in black-footed than in Laysan albatrosses, the Service says.
These substances are used in industry and agriculture, and once they make their way into the sea are found in concentrations that increase with the progression through the food chain from primary producers to top predators.
Black-footed albatrosses are top predators in marine ecosystems, and levels of these contaminants found in the species were determined to be high enough to pose a toxicological risk and interfere with reproduction.
The world experts on the status of seabirds, BirdLife International and the World Conservation Union, have recently concluded that the black-footed albatross should be classified as endangered.
Scientists estimate that only about 60,000 nesting pairs survive today, and that the current level of human-caused mortality is unsustainable.
Albatross mortality dropped when the Hawaii-based longline fishery for swordfish was temporarily shut down to reduce sea turtle bycatch. Federal officials are currently considering proposals to expand this fishery.
“If we want to save the black-footed albatross we need to better regulate Hawaii’s longline fisheries, not expand them,” said Paul Achitoff, Earthjustice attorney in Honolulu. “Unfortunately, the federal government seems determined to drive not just the albatross but also our sea turtles to extinction.”
Black-footed albatross are long-lived birds that have evolved a life history somewhat parallel to humans. They mate for life, lay only one egg per year, and if one of the pair dies, it can take three or more years before the living partner finds another mate and begins to reproduce again.
Current studies estimate that longline fishing in the Pacific Ocean captures more than three million sharks, 40,000 sea turtles, and tens of thousands of seabirds in its quest for large fish.
“Solving the problem for seabirds must be done immediately, but as long as we allow longliners to deploy billions of hooks every year, indiscriminately hooking marine wildlife species by the millions, our oceans won’t be safe,” said Todd Steiner of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “If we don’t act soon, longline fishing will empty our oceans and our skies.”