Albatross Enforcers

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We have known for a long time that some birds have a good sense of smell, especially seabirds. We now know, or at least strongly suspect, that some seabirds migrate by following certain odors of the ocean. Often, birdwatchers going on a pelagic vessel to observe seabirds far offshore, attract them by dropping oil, ground fish, or even buttered popcorn overboard. Shortly afterward the board is surrounded by seabirds. Now, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences reports on the practical use of this ability by using albatrosses.

Wandering Albatross

We know that global fish stocks are declining because the ocean is being overfished. And somewhere between a third and a half of the fishing that is going on is illegal. Fish that are not supposed to be caught are harvested and legally caught fish are overharvested by unscrupulous fishermen. But enforcement is difficult. Here’s where the albatross might be useful.

In the National Academy of Science paper, the researchers report that they outfitted around 200 albatrosses with GPS data loggers that can report the birds’ locations as well as detect short range radar signals. Albatrosses follow boats, hoping for some morsels thrown overboard, and they prefer, of course, to follow fishing boats. Boats typically have transponders that broadcast their location to other ships and land and air stations, in order to avoid collisions. But, of course, if a boat is in a prohibited location, it turns off its transponder so it isn’t caught.

As an albatross approaches a boat, its GPS signals the boat’s location and picks up short range radar signals that the boats use for navigation and avoiding obstacles and hazards.

According to a Science Magazine article “These are animal cops,” says marine ecologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University, who calls the work “groundbreaking.” In the future, patrolling seabirds might help reveal fishing grounds that should be targeted for enforcement. “You’re empowering animals to survey their own environment for conservation purposes,” Worm says. “That’s pretty cool.” The strategy could also help albatrosses themselves, which can be killed when they get caught in fishing gear or accidentally eat baited fishing hooks.

CBC news reports that “The loggers were attached to the backs of two species of albatross captured at breeding colonies in the Crozet, Kerguelen, and Amsterdam islands in the Southern Indian Ocean:

  • Wandering albatrosses, which are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN red list.
  • Amsterdam albatrosses, which as listed as endangered.

Between November 2018 and May 2019, the birds logged more than 600,000 GPS locations and made more than 5,000 radar detections from 353 different boats.”

Map of albatross wandering with GPS logger

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