UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia launches ambitious conservation plans to protect the iconic albatross
The UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands is today launching an ambitious conservation effort, to help protect the albatross.
South Georgia is a globally important breeding site for a number of seabirds, including black-browed, grey-headed and wandering albatrosses. These species have been protected and closely monitored for many years. Despite this, South Georgia’s albatross populations have declined, and the main cause has been attributed to incidental mortality associated with fisheries operating outside of South Georgia’s maritime zone.
Today’s announcement coincides with the publication in Polar Biology of research charting the decline of albatross populations at South Georgia over several decades. As a result of these declines they have been designated as ‘Priority Populations’ by the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP).
The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands has collaborated with the fishing industry to protect albatross in the waters around South Georgia. Modern fisheries management techniques have all but eliminated seabird by-catch in the maritime zone and supported the designation of the toothfish fishery as the highest-scoring Marine Stewardship Council certified fishery in the world. But the wide range of the albatross, extending many thousands of miles, brings them into contact with other, less well-managed, fisheries.
GSGSSI is now looking to better understand and address these external threats, and is delighted to be working in conjunction with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) undertake an initial study that will identify where and when albatrosses are at risk so as to better target education, conservation and monitoring programmes.
At the heart of the conservation effort announced today are Conservation Action Plans, intended to serve as a framework to guide, in an informed, prioritised and co-ordinated manner, actions required to improve the conservation status of albatross populations at South Georgia and globally. The UK Government, along with other key organisations such as the British Antarctic Survey and RSPB have supported the development of these plans and will assist in their implementation as appropriate.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How many albatross are there on SG and why are they declining?
Based on an archipelago-wide census conducted in 2014/15, it was estimated that there were approximately 1278 pairs of wandering albatross, down from 1553 pairs censused in 2003/04. Not all the black-browed and grey-headed albatross colonies were surveyed in 2014/15. Based on the sites that were censused in both survey years, numbers of black-browed albatrosses declined from 22,544 pairs in 2003/04 to 18,298 pairs in 2014/15, and grey-headed albatrosses declined from 34,571 pairs in 2003/04 to 19,568 pairs in 2014/15. These declines represent reductions in the populations over the 11 year period of 18% (wandering albatross), 19% (black-browed albatross) and 43% (grey-headed albatross).
There is no evidence for any land-based threats or disease affecting South Georgia albatrosses. Incidental mortality of seabirds in fisheries is generally considered to be the greatest threat to most albatross species. By-catch of seabirds has been reduced to negligible levels within the maritime zone of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI), which was formally declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2012, and in fisheries operating in waters managed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). The residual threat to the wandering, black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses from South Georgia is attributed to by-catch associated with fisheries operating outside of these areas.
Q: What has ACAP said about it?
The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) is a multilateral agreement which seeks to conserve albatrosses and petrels by coordinating international activity to mitigate known threats to their populations. The United Kingdom ratified ACAP in 2004 and extended the ratification to the relevant Overseas Territories, including South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. Due to their long-term declines, the South Georgia populations of these three species are all included in the list of ACAP High Priority populations. This designation has created extra impetus to further strengthen efforts to improve the conservation status of these species. The South Georgia Albatross Conservation Action Plans have been developed with key stake holders including the UK Government, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and all these organizations are committed to supporting the delivery of the plan.
Q: How many birds are caught in SG”s fishery?
The numbers of albatrosses caught in South Georgia fisheries are negligible with only a handful of birds caught in the last decade.
Q: Could the birds be getting caught in illegal fisheries around SG
GSGSSI employs a number of monitoring techniques to ensure there is no illegal fishing activity in the waters surrounding South Georgia. It has a dedicated fisheries patrol vessel the Pharos SG which makes regular patrols of the maritime Zone to check for illegal fishing activity and ensure that licenced vessels are complying with conservation measures. There is no evidence for illegal fishing in the SGSSI MZ.
Q: What measures does GSGSSI put in place to reduce bird by-catch?
The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) uses a number of cutting edge management tools for seabird mortality mitigation, including seasonal closures, use of bird-scaring devices, line setting protocols and ongoing education and collaboration programs with the fishing fleet.
Q: What albatross monitoring is carried out on South Georgia?
The majority of monitoring and research on albatrosses at South Georgia has been carried out by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) at Bird Island. This research was initiated by Lance Tickell in the late 1950s, and has been continued by BAS from the early 1970s to the present day. This data set is one of the longest and most comprehensive studies of albatrosses globally. The population monitoring at Bird Island has been complemented by demographic studies of wandering albatross at Albatross and Prion Islands in the Bay of Isles which has been ongoing since 1999 and archipelago-wide surveys of Wandering, Black-browed and Grey-headed albatrosses in the 1980s, 2003/04 and most recently in 2014/15.
Q: Wouldn’t it be better to just shut the fishery?
There is no evidence that the South Georgia fisheries are having any adverse effects on albatross and so closing them would not halt population decline. By having a fishery, South Georgia is able to develop best practice protocols which can be shared with other nations to help reduce their bird by-catch. The fishery also generates revenue that can be used to fund research into albatross and further conservation efforts to protect them
Q: What evidence is there that other fisheries are taking SG albatrosses?
The full impact of fisheries elsewhere on South Georgia albatrosses is difficult to quantify as not all fishing fleets have 100% observer coverage like those in South Georgia. Nevertheless, a number of longline and trawl fisheries operating in the Patagonian shelf, the South Atlantic, southern Africa and the Southern Indian Ocean have reported by-catch of wandering, black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses. Moreover, tracking studies of South Georgia albatrosses show that they overlap with a number of fishing fleets throughout their range. More detailed studies of this overlap and the potential interaction between the albatrosses and fishing fleets will help target conservation interventions.
Q: What impact is climate change having?
Climate change is emerging as a potentially important issue for Southern Ocean
seabirds, but its impacts are complex, and difficult to predict and manage. Potential impacts include changes to annual sea surface temperature and marine productivity, and changes in wind, rainfall patterns and ambient temperature that could lead to increased exposure of nesting birds and chicks. Through changes to marine and terrestrial environments, climate change may lead to modifications in the distribution, phenology, demography and population dynamics of seabirds and the prey species that they feed upon. Whilst research is needed to better understand the impacts of climate change on albatross, the most immediate and easy to mitigate threat to their survival is incidental mortality associated with fisheries operations.
Q. Are populations of albatrosses in the neighbouring Falkland Islands and southern Chile also declining?
The Falklands Islands and southern South America also support large populations of black-browed albatrosses and intriguingly these birds are not following the same declining trend. In fact, recent surveys have shown that they are increasing. The reason for this is thought to be due their different foraging distributions. A regional coordinated effort would benefit better understanding of the wider regional patterns of changes in albatross populations and how they might relate to differences in physical (climatic and oceanic) and fisheries influences. An improved coordinated regional effort is being facilitated through UK and regional stakeholders.
Q: How is GSGSSI working with RSPB to tackle this problem?
GSGSSI will be working with the RSPB to assess and address at sea threats to wandering, grey headed and black-browed albatross that breed on South Georgia. In collaboration with the British Antarctic Survey tracking data from birds that breed on South Georgia will be overlaid with data on the distribution of fishing fleets to identify areas and seasons of overlap. This analysis will then be used to inform and priorities engagement with these fleets to reduce albatross by-catch.