June 19—in addition to Juneteenth, commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States—is also the inaugural World Albatross Day. For the first time starting this year, organizations around the globe will be honoring these mighty yet threatened seabirds.
Albatrosses can be found plying the South Atlantic and North and South Pacific Oceans. We have three species of albatrosses in the U.S., all off the West Coast. Black-footed and Laysan albatrosses breed mostly at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, located within the larger Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument located in the Pacific Ocean 1,150 miles northwest of the Hawaiian Islands. The Short-tailed Albatross, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, breeds primarily in Japan. This species used to number about 10 million and was once the most abundant albatross on the U.S. Pacific Coast.
Albatrosses are supremely adapted to life on the high seas. They have wingspans of up to 11 feet, designed for extended gliding and sleeping on the wing. Their noses are equipped with airspeed sensors similar to those on airplanes. Their keen sense of smell guides them hundreds of miles to locate prey at the surface, where they are accessible to these non-diving birds. All of these evolutionary traits are critical to success in a vast, harsh and dynamic ocean.
Historically albatrosses were killed for their feathers and meat, and face a litany of threats today. Fortunately though, albatrosses have proven very responsive to conservation actions, and there are many beautiful stories of their recovery including our three North Pacific species.
For example, Short-tailed Albatross were hunted severely at their Japanese breeding islands, and by 1950, were presumed to be extinct. Then, to the delighted surprise of Japanese biologists, a handful of young adults returning from their adolescence at sea showed up in the early 1950s. The Japanese government responded with strong protection of these few remaining breeding birds. Then, in 2000, the U.S. listed the species as federally endangered which prompted our engagement in multinational collaboration to recover the species. Today, there are about 6,000 of these birds, and growing.
Another example involves the world’s oldest known wild bird, Wisdom. She is a Laysan Albatross banded at Midway Island in 1956, before plastics were in circulation. At the age of 67, she is still rearing chicks and has been widely reported on around the world.
Wisdom survives today because of the dedicated work of many people to reduce the deaths of albatrosses on fishhooks, remove invasive plants and animals (and even toxic lead paint) on their nesting islands, and protect their colonies. For everyone involved in protecting albatrosses, and for people who love the ocean, Wisdom’s tenacity is proof and inspiration that albatrosses are resilient enough to thrive into the future, if given the chance.
The protection of albatrosses is a high priority for Audubon and our network of dedicated activists. In the past 10 years on the West Coast, we have led successful campaigns to ensure there are plenty for forage fish for albatrosses in state and federal waters. We have supported expanded use of streamer (“bird-scaring”) lines in U.S-based fisheries, which virtually eliminate albatross bycatch without impacting fleet profitability or jobs. We helped win a fight to prevent the certification of destructive fishing gear types that would have incidentally caught a high number of albatrosses and other marine wildlife. We are working to reduce plastics in the ocean, and we continue to urge the federal government to join the international treaty to protect albatrosses, the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels.
On this first World Albatross Day, we are deeply grateful to the many dedicated people who have fought to protect all 22 species of albatrosses on this earth. If you want to help restore and protect our albatrosses, here is what you can do:
- Urge your members of congress to stand up for albatrosses and petrels by joining the international treaty.
- Buy wild-caught seafood caught with traps or hook-and-line.
- Reduce your use of plastics by tracking what you use and finding ways to replace plastics with reusable items.