A pair of New Zealand albatrosses in a same-sex partnership have captured the hearts of Sir David Attenborough fans, going viral after a clip of their courtship aired in Britain.
But new research on the Antipodean Albatross/toroa shows the outlook for the endangered bird remains bleak, likely extinct within 20-30 years.
At least 2% of the population are lost each year in fatal encounters with commercial fishing vessels.
But that number is just the tip of the iceberg – because most deaths on the high seas go unreported. A suspected 2300 die each year.
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Kath Walker and Graeme Elliot have spent up to 30 summers on the wave-lashed Antipodes Islands researching New Zealand’s most endangered seabird. The majestic ocean wanderer, only breeds there, and further south on Campbell Island. Earlier this year, they were accompanied by the BBC crew shooting Frozen Planet II.
The Department of Conservation scientists found the number nesting in 2022 across the Antipodes was estimated to be 2,927 pairs, the second lowest ever recorded.
Since 2020, the scientists have fitted more than 150 trackers to the birds. One of the tracked males died in a Chinese longlining vessel in the first year.
Last year, between May and August, the transmitters of three juveniles stopped close to pelagic long line vessels, which suggests they were caught. The bands of a tagged juvenile and a 25-year-old female were also recovered from a Taiwanese longliner. The birds were killed in the same fortnight in June.
Commercial fishing, introduced predators and climate change are putting penguins and other unique seabirds on the edge of survival. (File video)
By the end of July this year, 17 of 40 stopped transmitting.
Their decline has long been attributed to high levels of fisheries-related deaths in the Pacific Ocean, where longline vessels are targeting albacore tuna.
With a 3-metre wingspan fully grown, they forage over the continental shelf edge and deep water from the south of Western Australia to the coast of Chile, and can fly up to 100 kilometers in an hour.
But in recent years, sea-surface temperature changes caused by global warming are making their prey scarce and driving the albatross to forage further north, where they encounter fishing fleets on the high seas. Increasingly, they travel longer distances to find food which also affects their condition for breeding. More than half the females on Antipodes Island have disappeared at sea.
“The magnitude of fisheries mortality is such that its elimination would result in a substantial improvement in the Antipodean albatross population trajectory,” the scientists’ report read.
Their numbers, which began to decline sharply in 2005, are “showing no sign of recovery.”
The population of breeding females has been roughly stable for the last 4 years, but the report reveals there are about 1.5 times as many males as females. Modeling reveals the improved female survivorship is not great enough to cause population increase.
Same-sex romances are becoming more prevalent in the albatross community on the island, as females outnumber males.
An episode of the BBC’s Frozen Planet IIwhich aired in Britain last month, featured a pair of young male albatrosses finding romance.
Sir David narrates, attributing the blame for the decline in the population of females to commercial fishing practices in their feeding grounds.
The series, which airs in New Zealand on TVNZ early next year, is expected to reach 1 billion viewers.
WWF-NZ acting chair Lou Sanson said great care is needed if New Zealand is to avoid its first extinction of an albatross species. “The albatross is the new kākāpō of the oceans.”
The environmental NGO is putting pressure on the Government to change the rules around seabird bycatch mitigation. Domestic fishing regulations are weaker than those recommended in an international treaty, the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP).
The 20-year-old pact, created to halt the decline of seabirds in the southern hemisphere, recommends the simultaneous use of three measures, but in New Zealand, pelagic longline operators only have to use two.
“One of the saddest things is that we raised all that money for the Million Dollar Mouse project to rid the island of predators,” Sanson said. “We got that island in incredible shape and now the problem is miles away from that island.”
The years-long project eradicated more than 200,000 mice – also a threat to the erect-crested penguin, and two species of parakeet, all of which are found nowhere else.
A fundraising dinner on March 9, to mark the launch of Frozen Planet II in New Zealand, will auction a cruise to the Antipodes Island group, and a print of the Antipodean Albatross by Southland artist Hannah Shand.