The critically endangered Antipodes Island wandering albatross will be functionally extinct within the next 20 years unless the devastating decline in their population is halted, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says.
The population of this rare wandering albatross, which breeds almost exclusively on the remote Antipodes Island in the New Zealand subantarctic, has experienced an alarming decline in the past 13 years, with very high mortality of females and reduced breeding success.
Ms Sage, who has just visited Antipodes Island, says at their current rate of decline fewer than 500 pairs will remain within 20 years.
“In 1994-96, there were 5,180 pairs breeding each year on Antipodes Island. By 2015-17, there were only an estimated 2,900 pairs breeding there each year. More research is underway to better understand the situation. If nothing changes, at their current rate of decline, their future is very grim.”
The decline in numbers coincides with a change in foraging behaviour, with females in particular travelling much further than they formerly did, taking them into international waters north east of New Zealand and as far east as Chile.
Females are dying in large numbers, which has led to a very skewed sex ratio in the population, with many males now unable to find a partner.
“The main known human cause of adult mortality is bycatch in fisheries. Wandering albatrosses are known to be highly susceptible to bycatch, particularly in pelagic longline fisheries such as those targeting tuna. Reduced food, squid and fish, and alteration in the birds’ foraging locations due to changing ocean temperatures and wind speed may be the cause of reduced breeding success in recent years,” Ms Sage said.
New Zealand is actively working with international organisations such as the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) and Regional Fisheries Management Organisations to highlight the concern for Antipodes Island wandering albatrosses when they leave New Zealand waters and to try and ensure fisheries bycatch risks are appropriately managed, even on the high seas.
In New Zealand waters, a National Plan of Action has been developed to reduce seabird bycatch. New Zealand vessels are required to use bird scaring lines and daytime line setting among other methods, to minimise any chance of accidentally hooking and drowning seabirds.
“Further research on the diet and foraging patterns of Antipodes Island wandering albatrosses can help better understand what is happening to these birds.
“The rapid collapse of the Antipodes Island wandering albatross population means we need urgent international action to prevent this magnificent species sliding into extinction.”
“Such action could include protecting important seabird feeding areas to reduce albatross deaths on hooks in pelagic longline fisheries for tuna and swordfish.”
“Gaining a better understanding of the birds’ diet will help us identify how fishing may be influencing the availability of prey, and could potentially allow for fisheries management to improve the availability of prey species for the Antipodes Island wandering albatross.”
The term "wandering albatross" refers to a group of five great albatrosses, of which only two breed in the New Zealand subantarctic region, one in the Auckland Islands and one on Antipodes Island.