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Last flight of the albatross?

Last flight of the albatross?

The albatross - legendary protector of seafarers - is heading for extinction. Biologists have discovered that swordfish and tuna fishing fleets are eliminating more than 100,000 of these birds every year. In a couple of decades most species will be wiped out unless urgent action is taken.

This alarming conclusion, to be outlined this week at a major zoological conference in London, is based on a new generation of tracking units that have been monitoring the behaviour of these giant birds for the past few years.

The instruments have shown that albatrosses are capable of astonishing feats of endurance and navigation, and can fly round the world several times without stopping on land. During their lives, they fly the equivalent of 50 return trips to the moon: more than 10 million miles.

'However, our research has discovered that albatrosses are being killed at a horrific rate,' said Professor John Croxall, of the British Antarctic Survey. 'The trouble stems from long-line fishing in which boats tow huge, heavily baited lines. The albatrosses try to eat the bait and get dragged down and drowned.'

Albatrosses breed once every one or two years. While rearing youngsters, parents undergo journeys of thousands of miles to find food. However, these vast distances increase the albatrosses' chance of encountering a fishing fleet. Many get tangled in mile-long lines laced with bait. Most fleet owners deny causing anything but the occasional death. However, recent data makes clear that more than 100,000 albatrosses a year may die in lines.

'The problem is that albatrosses - no matter the species - breed relatively infrequently and only by the time they are 12 to 15 years old,' said Croxall. 'They used to live to around the age of 50, so that was not a great problem. But now they are being killed off before they can reach even half that age.'

Measures include weighting lines so they sink quickly and do not entice birds, setting lines at night, and setting off bird-scaring lines - made up of multi-coloured streamers to startle seabirds.

'All these measures are relatively simple to implement and cost only a few dollars,' Croxall said. 'However, we have to convince fleet managers that it is worth their while. We reckon they are losing about £10 million a year because albatrosses are getting caught on their lines, preventing fish from being caught.'










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