Rare sighting of a near-extinct albatross

    Short-tailed albatross [USFWS / courtesy Hiroshi Hasegawa]

    A chill breeze numbed the cheeks, but it could have been much worse. We were 30 miles off the Oregon Coast on a December day. The ocean was a little choppy, but I didn’t expect glassy seas. The sun even shone brightly at times.

    We paused to chum with popcorn and beef fat to bring in scattered seabirds. A raft of assorted gulls, fulmars and about 20 black-footed albatrosses had gathered for the feast when a voice announced firmly “short-tailed albatross.”

    The boat tipped slightly to port as the 30 or so birders strained to see a bird once thought extinct. As of 2003, it had been seen a total of three times in Oregon. We needn’t have rushed. The bird with the seven-foot wingspan came in close, made three or four leisurely passes on its long narrow wings before heading off to the horizon.

    Adult short-tailed albatrosses are white with dark wings and a yellow wash on the head that gives them the affectionate name of “golden goonie.” This was a young bird, all brown with a large, pink bill.

    The short-tailed albatross, once the most abundant albatross in the North Pacific, was hunted to near-extinction by Japanese plume hunters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They nested on Torishima and nearby islands. By the time the Japanese government put a stop to the killing in the 1930s, many thought it was already too late.

    Fortunately, albatrosses take 7 to 8 years to reach maturity. There were just enough young cruising the ocean to return to initiate breeding again in about 1953. From the original 10 or so pairs, their population has steadily, if slowly, increased. By 1982 there were an estimated 250 birds. Today some estimates put the number as high as 1,000 individuals, but it will be a while before the population again exceeds a million birds.

    A thousand is a tiny number when scattered across more than 13,000,000 square miles of the North Pacific. Those of us on the pelagic trip out of Newport felt fortunate to have seen one.

    While short-tailed albatrosses are increasing, the black-footed and Laysan albatrosses, the other two North Pacific species, are declining. Populations have fallen 19 to 30 percent in recent decades. The principle causes involve the ingestion of ocean plastics and the longline fishery. Longline fishing involves lines miles long with hundreds or thousands of baited hooks. As the line is let out, seabirds dive after the bait, catching and drowning many birds.

    The U.S. and 12 other countries have created the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). One of the main goals is to reduce mortality by encouraging the placement of long streamers behind the fishing boats. The streamers keep the birds away from the baited hooks until they are deep in the water. The agreement also recommends setting longlines at night.

    I encourage you to join a pelagic tour to discover the unique birds that come from as far as Australia, New Zealand and Japan to visit our coast. And you don’t have to brave winter seas. Most trips take place in August and September during the peak of migration. Google "Oregon Pelagic Tours" for more information.

    — Stewart Janes is a biology professor as Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

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