Albatrosses and petrels need international protection | Polarjournal
All of the 40 known species of albatross and petrel spend a large part of their lives in the open ocean. The animals have adapted accordingly and like to rest on the ocean surface. The current study shows how much time and where they spend it at sea. Picture: Michael Wenger

The Southern Ocean is one of the richest bodies of water on earth. Under the water surface and also above it, a wide variety of animal species cavort. Seabirds in particular benefit from the abundance of food and remote islands for breeding. An international study now shows how much time albatrosses and petrels spend at sea. However, it also explicitly shows how much responsibility individual states and fisheries organisations have to act for the protection of seabirds.

“Seabirds like albatrosses are the ultimate globetrotters”.

Martin Beal, lead author, Instituto Universitário Lisboa, Portugal

The international research team led by lead author Martin Beal of the University of Lisbon concludes that the 39 albatross and petrel species studied worldwide spend around 40 percent of their lives in the open ocean, i.e. in areas not managed by a country. Except for one species, all the bird species investigated connect at least two countries with each other by flying over their borders at least once per year and staying there. “Seabirds like albatrosses are the ultimate globetrotters,” explains lead author Martin Beal. “But this incredible lifestyle makes them vulnerable to threats in places where legal protection is inadequate.” The researchers see fishing in international waters, which is not subject to serious controls there, as the main threat. About half of the 39 species investigated are now considered endangered – seriously threatened, and 29 species are listed as directly affected by fishing. These include the wandering albatross, the largest seabird, and the two types of giant petrels. All three are well-known seabird types breeding on sub-Antarctic islands and are among the icons of seabird conservation.

For their work, which was published in the journal Science Advances, the scientists analyzed GPS data from transmittered seabirds collected between 1989 and 2017. They investigated albatrosses and greater petrels because they have global distirbutions, have long been studied by transmitters, have long migration routes, are high seas dependent and also because of the IUCN status of each species. The team concluded that the greatest species richness is found regionally in the Southern Ocean. In addition, the data show that seabirds in the south spend most of their time breeding in Australian and New Zealand regions, while Argentine, Chilean and South African regions are mainly visitor regions. This result is particularly important because animals within these areas are protected by current legislation. But once they fly into international waters, they are unprotected. This, in turn, softens national protection measures and increases the threat posed by the burgeoning fishing industry.

The southern parts of the oceans, also known as the Southern Ocean, have the highest species richness of albatrosses and petrels (small image). This is related to the abundance of food and breeding opportunities on the islands. There they are also subject to the protection efforts of the administering states. Large image: Michael Wenger, small: Beal et al (2021) Science Advances

The research team’s work also examined the magnitude of responsibility of various fishery management organizations and the states where the birds either breed or pass through as visitors. The scientists hope that this will lead to improved cooperation between the states and between the organisations themselves. The aim would be uniform, improved protection provisions also in the area of the high seas. According to co-author Dr Maria Dias of BirdLife International, “The results of the study will be particularly useful in identifying the key fisheries management bodies responsible for the waters where threatened seabirds from certain countries spend a lot of time. This should enhance opportunities for international advocacy and cooperation to promote their conservation.” Initial agreements that have been reached between different countries show that this can deliver measurable success. But many holes still remain open on the long migration routes of albatrosses and petrels, continuing to threaten these magnificent wanderers of the oceans.

Wandering albatrosses had helped expose illegal fishing in the Southern Ocean in the past. But the world’s largest seabirds are still highly endangered despite all conservation efforts. Picture: Michael Wenger

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Beal, Martin et al. (2021) Science Advances 7 (10): Global political responsibility for the conservation of albatrosses and large petrels; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd7225

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