To mark World Oceans' Day, the RSPB and Birdlife International are celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Albatross Task Force.  This is one of our most successful conservation programmes and serves as a powerful reminder of what can be achieved through hard work, expertise, creativity and the generosity of our supporters.  It also provides hope that we can tackle some of the most intractable global conservation problems.

Black-browed Albatross, (photo courtesy of Grahame Madge,

Here's the backstory...

Peter Prince and John Croxall of the British Antarctic Survey began systematic monitoring of albatross populations at Bird Island, South Georgia in the 1970s, continuing work started by Lance Tickell and Ron Pinder back in 1958-64. These studies of age, reproductive performance and survivorship started showing declines by 1979.

By the late 1980s evidence was emerging of high bycatch levels in tuna fisheries off Uruguay and Brazil.  In 1990 John and Peter were able to demonstrate statistically significant declines in wandering albatross at South Georgia and at the same time the Nigel Brothers from Australia revealed annual mortality levels associated with the Japanese tuna fleet were in the order of 40,000 albatrosses.

Albatrosses became one of the most threatened groups of birds in the world with 19 out of the 22 species of albatross at risk of extinction (appearing in the Red List's top three categories of risk: Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable).  The declines were primarily driven by huge numbers of birds being accidentally caught on longline fishing hooks and trawl cables: an estimated 100,000 albatrosses were being killed this way every year.

In the early 2000s, conversations started within the RSPB and Birdlife about what action we could take to deal with the crisis.  We needed to influence policies that governed regional fisheries but we also decided we needed to employ people to work with fishermen to train them catch fish rather than seabirds.  The Albatross Task Force was formed in 2006 and since then the results have been spectacular.  

For example, there has been a 99% reduction in albatross deaths in the South African hake trawl fishery through the introduction of bird-scaring lines, a simple solution which prevents seabirds from interacting with fishing equipment (shown below).  Experimental trials demonstrate at least 85% reductions in seabird bycatch are possible in six other fisheries where regulations that require the use of bird-safe methods on their boats are now in place.  

Bird-scaring lines in action off the coast of South Africa (photo courtesy of Gwyn Williams)

Thanks to the work of the Albatross Task Force, seven out of the ten fisheries originally identified as seabird bycatch hotspots have now adopted regulations to protect seabirds during fishing.

But most importantly, we have improved the conservation prospects of four albatross species (including black-browed albatross shown above) which no longer appear in the top three extinction risk categories.    

Today, I would like to applaud the incredible work that the RSPB/Birdlife team has done over the years.  They are a remarkable group of people who now operate in eight countries including Argentina (hosted by Aves Argentinas), Brazil (Projeto Albatroz), Chile (CODEFF), Ecuador until 2013 (Aves y Conservación), Namibia (Namibia Nature Foundation), Peru (ProDelphinus), South Africa (BirdLife South Africa) and Uruguay (Proyecto Albatros y Petreles de Uruguay).

I have confidence that they will do what it takes to improve the conservation prospects of all albatross species.  

Their efforts give us belief that we can tackle other twenty-first century conservation problems whether it is stopping the decline in Afro-Palaearctic migratory birds, restoring farmland bird populations across Europe or even ensuring birds of prey can fly free from harm over our countryside.

  • More fantastic work by the RSPB. Many congratulations to all concerned for turning a disastrous situation around.. No organisation is perfect but for all that like to regularly criticise the RSPB let them read this article.