Aotearoa New Zealand and Spain are working together to protect one of the world’s most endangered seabirds, the Antipodean albatross, Diomedea antipodensis.

In December 2021, New Zealand’s Ambassador for Spain, Nigel Fyfe, on behalf of the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for Primary Industries signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Spanish Vice President, Teresa Ribera, to reduce seabird bycatch in high seas fisheries.

One of the focal species for the MoU is the Antipodean albatross, Diomedea antipodensis. Listed as Endangered and decreasing on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the Antipodean albatross is one of the species targeted by the work of the BirdLife International Marine Programme and we welcome the news.

Slow to mature, this species only begins breeding from the age of 10-years. Even then, just one egg is laid with each breeding attempt, usually every two years. The low rate of reproduction further compounds the vulnerable nature of the species to anthropogenic threats. Endemic to the New Zealand subantarctic islands of Antipodes, Auckland and Campbell (see Figure 1 [distribution map]), the species breeds on remote protected sites with restricted visitor access. Despite this, more than half of the breeding population has been lost since 2004,[1]  largely attributed to interactions with fisheries.

Figure 1: Map showing the global distribution of Antipodean albatross taken from Seabird Tracking Database http://www.seabirdtracking.org/mapper/index.php 

The MoU aims to promote adoption of best practice fishing methods as advised under the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatross and Petrels (ACAP),[2] including using ‘three out of three mitigation measures’ – which refers to the combined use of weighted lines, bird-scaring lines, and night setting. The inclusion of ACAP recommendations in the MoU is particularly promising as we know that when fully complied with seabird bycatch rates can be reduced by up to 80-90%.[3]

  • The agreement further establishes a commitment between the two nations to share information, research and implement the Antipodean Albatross Concerted Action Plan, a recently adopted United Nations convention.

Incidental mortality in fisheries (bycatch) is a key driver of globally declining seabird populations. Of particular concern to the Antipodean albatross is pelagic longline fisheries, where deaths from fisheries is resulting in significant population declines. Often used to target tuna, a longline can be up to 100 km in length and set thousands hooks at a time. It is estimated that between 160,000 and 320,000 seabirds are accidentally hooked and killed in longline fisheries globally every year.[4] Female Antipodean albatross have shown a tendency to feed in areas frequented by longline vessels and more than half of all females on Antipodes Island have vanished whilst at sea. The remaining population now suffers from a skewed sex ratio with two males for every one female.

To further complicate the issue, the Antipodean albatross is a highly migratory species that frequently travels between international boundaries on the high seas between Australia and Chile (see Figure 1 [distribution map]), where fisheries management and bycatch reduction can be challenging. Satellite tracking data has identified areas of overlap between the Antipodean albatross and pelagic longline fishing activity (see Figure 2). Areas of concern occur in the high seas area of the Western Pacific Ocean, particularly in the Tasman Sea and to the north-east of New Zealand. Several fishing fleets have been identified as operating in areas frequented by the species including, China, Chinese Taipei, Vanuatu (likely to be vessels operating under a flag of convenience[5] by Chinese Taipei or China), New Zealand, and Spain. Conservation of such a species therefore requires collaborative efforts from several nations around the globe to drive effective conservation action.

Figure 2: Pelagic longline fisheries overlap with Antipodean albatross in the South Pacific Ocean for 2019. The red ovals highlight the highest risk areas for Antipodean albatross. The small red squares represent the highest vessel fishing effort and Antipodean albatross overlap, dark green is lowest overlap, and translucent green cells in the bottom panel represent bird distribution with no/little overlap. Dashed lines indicate RFMO boundaries and purple lines represent 25°S and 30°S latitude. Source: Bose, S. & Debski, I. (2020). Antipodean albatross spatial distribution and fisheries overlap 2019. Prepared by the Department of Conservation, 23 p: https://www.doc.govt.nz/globalassets/documents/conservation/marine-and-coastal/marine-conservation-services/reports/final-reports/antipodean-albatross-fisheries-overlap-2020.pdf 

Spain is a major fishing nation, with a distant water fleet operating beyond the jurisdictional remit of New Zealand’s waters. Thus, the new MoU marks a significant step towards protecting the Antipodean albatross and other migratory seabirds. It is now crucial that the two nations act urgently to ensure fleets effectively implement best-practice seabird bycatch mitigation measures, recommended by ACAP to help halt and reverse the decline of the Antipodean albatross and other seabird species.

[1]The New Zealand Department of Conservation estimates 2,300 Antipodean albatrosses unnecessarily die every year.

[2] The Agreement for the Conservation of Albatross and Petrels is an international agreement which coordinates activities to mitigate threats to albatross and petrel species. The bycatch mitigation measures advised by ACAP are widely considered as best practice.

[3] Melvin, E.F., Guy, T.J. and Read, L.B., 2014. Best practice seabird bycatch mitigation for pelagic longline fisheries targeting tuna and related species. Fisheries Research, 149, pp.5-18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fishres.2013.07.012

[4] Towards Seabird Safe Fisheries

[5] A practice whereby a vessel can be registered to a different country than that of the owner.

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