issue 318 - November 1999
E N D P I E C E
My first wanderer
The Ancient Mariner sealed his fate by killing the albatross.
Horatio Morpurgo thinks we are doing the same thing –
on an industrial scale.
NORBERT WU / STILL PICTURES
Thirty miles off the coast of New South Wales, scientists and environmentalists have hired a fishing boat for the day. They throw lumps of mincemeat off the stern as wandering albatrosses fly in and settle on the water to feed. They are scooped up in nets, have a rubber band wrapped around the powerful beak, then they are weighed, measured, ringed and let go. They generally remain docile as they undergo these indignities, more bemused than alarmed.
The Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association (SOSSA) has been doing this since 1956. Every winter vast numbers of cuttlefish come to breed and die in the waters off Woollongong, and several species of albatross gather to feed on the carcasses, the wanderers travelling up to 9,000 miles.
Humans have long been fascinated by the world’s largest flying bird, which breeds on remote islands and lives for up to 90 years – Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner likens it to ‘a Christian soul’, to Baudelaire it was a symbol of the roaming imagination and in this century satellites have been used to study its unrivalled flying and navigating abilities.
In the 21st century, however, it could come to symbolize something altogether less romantic. Every year the world’s fishing fleet throws back into the sea some 20 million tonnes of fish and other marine wildlife, known as ‘bycatch’. And every year some 40,000 albatrosses, mostly young birds, form a part of it. This is not a case of humans and albatrosses competing for a food, but of carelessness on an industrial scale.
Albatrosses follow longline fishing boats for the waste thrown overboard. They also scavenge the baits as they are paid out from the stern of the ship. Once hooked they are drawn underwater by the sinking longline and are drowned. The death-rate works out at around 0.4 albatrosses per 1,000 hooks. Between 70 and 100 million hooks are set each year in the Southern Oceans. The southern bluefin tuna was fished out in the 1980s by the Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean fleets, using up to 180 million hooks per year between them. Severely reduced catches led to the introduction of quotas, so in the early 1990s these fleets shifted to sub-Antarctic waters. Their operations overlap now with almost all the main feeding-grounds used by wandering albatrosses.
There are simple and proven methods of reducing seabird bykill. The use of streamers fluttering over the line as it is set is known to reduce the carnage by up to 75 per cent. Using properly weighted lines, fully thawed bait and casting machines, the line can be made to sink quicker than the birds can dive for it. Lines can be set at night. Offal can be dumped at the other end of the boat, directing birds away from the lines. Researchers in Australia are developing a hook which will not catch fish, or anything else, until it is 20 metres below the surface. All or any of these would significantly improve the situation.
I had never actually seen one of these birds before. We left harbour an hour before dawn – Woollongong is an industrial town as well as a port, with an orange pall in the sky above its steel works even at that hour. The coastline is still just visible at daybreak when the first wanderer swings into view. It circles the boat on massive speckled wings – a young bird – the tips making minute adjustments to avoid touching the surface of the water. Then it banks and glides in again to give us a closer look. The end of the coastal shelf is still some distance away, so we are not yet throwing out bait. One more time around and it turns towards the open sea, low over the water.
It is hard to give up on a creature like that. With a slow rate of reproduction – one chick every other year – they are very vulnerable to sudden population loss such as that inflicted over the past 20 years. The survival-rate in young birds needs to be at least 32 per cent to sustain a stable population and is now down to 30 per cent. Serious declines have been recorded at all the main breeding grounds.
The outcry over dolphin mortality on the Pacific yellowfin tuna fisheries led to improved fishing practices and a significant decline in dolphin bykill. It can be done. The use of drift-nets on the high seas, so lethal to all marine wildlife, may continue illegally but was largely phased out by the end of 1992 because of pressure from environmentalists. WWF Australia is now running a campaign to promote the many methods of reducing albatross bykill. They are under no illusions about the scale of the task. There is little or no monitoring of the Asian tuna fleets in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, which are by far the biggest.
Which raises larger questions. The world’s fishing fleets have doubled in size since 1970. A recent WWF report estimates that 13 of the world’s largest fleets, including that of the European Union, have a capacity two-and-a-half times greater than required for a sustainable catch. As the oceans, north and south, are plundered at an ever-crazier rate, it is as well to know what we are buying into when we reach for that oh-so-reasonably-priced tin of tuna fish on the supermarket shelf. Our grandchildren may not thank us for being so penny-wise.
Horatio Morpurgo is a freelance writer based in London.