How Congress Can Protect Seabirds With One Simple Act

By signing ACAP, the United States would save seabirds from bad fishing practices.

Albatrosses and petrels are among Earth’s most imperiled seabirds. That’s largely because they get hooked on longlines set by commercial fishermen and because many of the islands where they breed are infested with alien invaders such as insects and rodents.

Here in the United States we’ve made significant advances in addressing both these threats. This country is the world leader in devising longline-mitigation measures that drastically reduce and in some cases eliminate bird bycatch. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act makes these measures mandatory for U.S. fishermen. And U.S. agencies and nonprofits are pioneers in recovering seabirds and other native species on islands. Among the more spectacular recent successes is the rat eradication by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy, and Island Conservation on the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the South Pacific. There, populations of Sooty Terns, White Terns, Black Noddies, Brown Noddies, and White-tailed Tropicbirds are now surging.

Sadly, the United States hasn’t had standing to influence other countries to adopt our seabird-saving innovations, because Congress has failed to ratify a 15-year-old, 13-nation treaty to identify and remove threats to albatrosses and petrels. But Congressional action may finally be forthcoming. In February Representative Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) introduced H.R. 4480—a bill that would make the United States party to the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP).

Joining ACAP would require no expenditure and no new regulation for U.S. fishermen in U.S. waters. However, it would be more than symbolic. For one thing, the existing driftnet moratorium—which mandates protections for certain marine species in international waters, and gives the United States tools to deal with nations that violate those protections—would be amended to include all the species covered by ACAP. If any nation engages in activity that results in the bycatch of these species, we could prohibit the importation of its seafood and deny it port privileges.

More importantly, ACAP membership would give us the opportunity to bring other members up to our standards. And if our nation signs on, others will likely follow, perhaps including the three busiest longliners—Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. A similar outcome occurred with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which codified an agreement between the United States and Canada. Our example inspired similar bird-protection agreements with Mexico, Japan, and, most recently, Russia.

Lowenthal makes the point that ACAP membership would render our fishing industry more competitive by encouraging other nations to adopt the bycatch-mitigation methods required of U.S. fishermen. We already abide by these regulations, “but there are other players that don’t,” he told me. “This is a golden opportunity for the U.S. to improve wildlife conservation around the world.” ACAP membership would also give the United States an opportunity to leverage other countries to rid islands of seabird-killing alien species.

Joining ACAP is a no-brainer by any standard. Yet Congress has steadfastly failed to take action. It was President George W. Bush who first sent ACAP legislation to the Senate. He’d been inspired by his love for the sea, and by his wife, Laura, who had visited Midway Island and been much moved by the nesting albatrosses. ACAP ratification has consistently had bipartisan support, and it has been a priority with the Obama administration. No group has lobbied against ACAP membership. Congressional torpor has been the main reason for this harmful, embarrassing failure.

Considering the record of our current Congress, is there hope for a resolution? Audubon policy associate Erik Schneider believes there is. “We’re optimistic,” he declares, noting that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been receptive to the legislation. “We’re having good conversations in the Senate.”

No one, even in Congress, objects to ACAP membership. Our legislators just haven’t bothered to make it happen. If Lowenthal’s bill dies, it will be a low point in U.S. lawmaking.