Albatross a-go-go

Southern Royal Albatross. Image by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com), licensed under Creative Commons 3.3

Southern Royal Albatross. Image by JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com), licensed under Creative Commons 3.3

Shouting “Albatross” in a crowded room will often generate quotes from this short Monty Python sketch (warning – language Not Safe For Work), at least if your audience is above a certain age (or level of nerdiness).

For those of a more literary disposition, the word brings to mind Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in which the narrator (as well as the rest of the crew, in different ways) suffers for killing the albatross that led the ship out of the Antarctic.

But what interest does the albatross hold for biodiversity scientists? I’m glad you asked.

Albatross, like some other seabirds, tend to get caught as bycatch in longline fishing, and this is a serious threat. The birds are attracted to the bait, or the caught fish, and can be trapped on the hook and drown, or just get tangled in the line with the same result.

Enter the Japan Tuna Fisheries Co-operative Association and their double-weighted branchline – the branchlines are the shorter lines that hang from the long (up to 150 km long) line, and which carry the baited hooks. The weights help the branchlines sink faster, so that the seabirds have less chance to get caught on the baited hooks, while the double weighting prevents the hooks becoming fouled as they sink, and also prevents them from acting as crew-directed missiles as they’re raised.

This, combined with a tori-line (a rope with colourful streamers, intended to scare away birds as the lines are lowered into the water), has resulted in a dramatic decrease in seabird bycatch – read more on the story here.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the albatross are now free from threats, or that longline fishing is perfectly safe. There’s habitat loss and increased competition for decreasing food stocks, for the birds, and bycatch of marine creatures and overfishing as threats from longline fishing. But at least this is one threat that’s been mitigated by clever thinking by concerned humans, and it’s encouraging that concerns like this are becoming part of general discourse, rather than being relegated to the fringe.

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