Blue Planet 2 has been the most watched television programme of the year, and for good reason, with its stunning cinematography and charismatic cast of characters. Steph Winnard, International Marine Project Manager for the RSPB, discusses the highlights of the show for her, and why the stories of the human impact are the scenes she won’t be forgetting.

Over the last few weeks Blue Planet 2 has led us on an incredible journey of discovery of new weird and wonderful creatures from the deep oceans, shown us unknown behaviours like the octopus fooling the shark with its ingenious disguise of shells, and has provided us with new nightmare material in the form of the Bobbit worm! 

For me and for many other people watching the show the thing that sticks most with me is the story telling around the huge impact we as humans are having on our oceans. I will readily admit to being reduced to tears more than once seeing the pilot whale mother clinging to her dead calf, which had possibly been poisoned by her toxic milk, and last night watching the sperm whale trying to eat a bucket, and the majestic wandering albatross chick killed by a plastic toothpick.

Albatrosses are one of the most endangered groups of birds in the world, with 14 of the 22 species facing extinction, so losing even a few because of plastic pollution, is really bad news. South Georgia is over 800 miles from the nearest land but still plastic is being found there, and for the albatross of the Pacific Ocean, many live chicks are brought up in nests made of plastics and are fed huge amounts of plastic, mistaken for food by their parents, with sometimes devastating consequences.

Wandering albatross with chick on South Georgia (c) Stephanie Winnard

On South Georgia the population of wandering albatross has halved over the last 35 years, and the main cause of this has been interactions with fishing, birds flock to the boats in search of a free meal, but sadly it can be their last. It is estimated that around 100,000 albatrosses are killed every year by longline and trawl fisheries around the world, when they are hooked and drowned, or struck by trawler cables and dragged under the water. This level of “bycatch” is hugely unsustainable for birds that can take up to 10 years to start breeding, and has led to worrying declines in albatross populations across the globe.  

The RSPB has been working to save the albatross since 2005 when it set up the Albatross Task Force (ATF), an international collaboration of dedicated instructors working directly with fishermen in South America and Southern Africa teaching them simple ways they can avoid accidentally killing albatross.  Measures such as fishing at night when birds are less active, weighting lines so they sink faster and using bird scaring lines to keep birds out of danger areas are all extremely effective.

The ATF have focused efforts on the ten worst hotspots for albatross bycatch, and have had some huge successes; reducing albatross bycatch by 99% in the South African demersal trawl fleet, getting regulations introduced to protect seabirds in 9/10 of the hotspot fisheries, and developing entirely new ways of stopping birds being killed in nets.  You can find out more detail about our work in our annual report.

Bird scaring line with giant petrels in Argentina (c) Ruben Dellacasa

Despite this success, there is still much work to do to ensure that reductions in bycatch are sustainable into the future, and the ATF are still working closely with the fishing industry in many countries to ensure that albatrosses are kept off the hook.

You can join the fight to save the albatross by helping us raise funds by sending in your Christmas stamps. Each stamp has a very small value but we can sell them to collectors in bulk to raise funds for our vital work. Last year we raised over £20,000 from stamps allowing us to give the albatross a brighter future. To find out how to send your stamps in click here.

RSPB has been working in collaboration with the Government of South Georgia and the South Shetland Islands to conserve albatross, and a new first day cover set of albatross stamps has been produced to raise funds. There are available to buy this week from the RSPB’s ebay store here.

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