For several years, South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) and Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI) have been supporting a major albatross conservation project which is raising global awareness of the plight of South Georgia’s albatross species and addressing the threats they face when foraging at sea, far from the safety of South Georgia’s protected waters
With its location near the fertile ocean currents of the Antarctic convergence, South Georgia is a wildlife sanctuary, and one of the few places in the stormy Southern Ocean where many species – including albatross – can breed and rear their young on land.
These ideal habitats mean that South Georgia is a globally significant breeding site for several albatross species including: Grey-headed (50% of world population), Wandering (18% of world population) and Black-browed (12% of world population).
As some of South Georgia’s most important nesting bird species, these unique creatures have long acted as a sentinel for global albatross populations. It is estimated that an albatross dies somewhere in the world’s fisheries every five minutes (c.100,000 deaths a year). Incidental mortality during commercial fishing operations, known as bycatch, has resulted in widespread population decline in albatross species worldwide. As a result, albatrosses are the world’s most threatened family of birds. Of the 22 species, IUCN Red List has listed 17 as ‘Threatened with extinction’ and the remaining five are considered to be ‘Near-threatened’. Worryingly, research, led by scientists at British Antarctic Study (BAS), found that all of South Georgia’s albatross species had experienced steep population decline of 44% (Grey-headed), 18% (Wandering) and 19% (Black-browed) over the previous 11 years.
At-sea Threats to South Georgia’s Wandering, Grey-headed and Black-browed Albatross Populations
International fishing fleets pose the greatest direct threat to South Georgia’s albatross populations. Albatrosses by their very nature are opportunistic foragers that take advantage of diverse food items including food scraps made available at the ocean surface and by foraging behind fishing vessels. Their circumpolar distribution also brings them into conflict with a wide range of pelagic longline fisheries.
We know that given the albatross’s extensive feeding ranges – some make a round journey of 100,000 miles to locate and bring back food for their chicks – addressing the by-catch challenge needs a collaborative, multi-national effort.
Addressing the by-catch Challenge Through a Global Collaboration
SGHT, FOSGI and our lead partners, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), BAS, BirdLife International and the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI), are working together to reduce the high mortality rate among South Georgia’s albatross species.
This work is ultimately about ensuring global albatross populations thrive once more.
- To work with international fishing fleets to study and address by-catch threats to albatross species.
- Using satellite tracking, research the distribution of immature and juvenile albatrosses from South Georgia, a population particularly prone to bycatch.
- Raise awareness of the plight of South Georgia albatrosses, particularly through social media. This will bring the issue alive for the public and decision-makers.
A Lasting Global Impact
The immediate and sustained change this project aims to realise is to establish protocols among global fishing fleets that will drive the widespread use of bycatch mitigation measures (specifically targeting the Japanese tuna fleets initially). This will lead to a reduction in the number of South Georgia albatrosses that perish and ultimately remove these albatross species from global endangered list.
Steph Prince of RSPB and Yasuko Suzuki of BirdLife Japan gave an excellent webinar talk about this work for the South Georgia Association on 18 November 2021 – Saving Ocean Wanderers.