Tasmania's shy albatross population is in trouble. Climate change is taking its toll on the fragile breeding cycle of these giant birds but WWF-Australia and our partners have hatched a plan to save the species.
Saving the shy albatross
Soaring majestically above the oceans between Australia and Africa, the shy albatross appears not to have a care in the world. Breeding only on Australian islands, it can live for up to 40 years and enjoys the partnership of a life-long mate. But the truth is this elegant species - one of Australia’s largest seabirds – is under threat.
Pairs are faithful –to each other and their breeding sites on just three remote islands off Tasmania. They breed annually and produce a single egg, which is incubated for 72 days. Both parents tend the demanding chick for the first five months of its life and that fledgling will return to the same breeding colony when it matures, but not until at least three years of age.
The shy albatross travels vast distances in search of fish, squid and jellyfish. Anything that floats on the ocean's surface is fair game, which means it sometimes ingests marine pollution, such as plastics, oils and chemicals. But it is the rapid warming of and air temperatures that could ultimately prove the most troubling.
WWF-Australia is proud to be working with the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE), Tasmanian Albatross Fund, and the CSIRO to help the shy albatross.
What we're doing
If we're to have any chance of arresting the decline in shy albatross numbers then we have to ensure that many more chicks reach adolescence. Studies have shown that the better quality the nest, the greater the prospect of parents producing a healthy chick. Building resilience in the small albatross populations will also help them to cope with climate change. Scientists believe that increased air temperatures during the chick-rearing period are reducing their rate of survival. Plus, mean foraging parents spend longer and travel further to find enough food for their chicks.
Albatross nests - a lumpy mound of mud, vegetation and rocks - are the key to breeding success. But often there is insufficient nest-building material on the few islands where the albatross breed, which are also crowded with Australasian gannets. Working with our partners, around 120 artificial nests were deployed on Albatross Island in Bass Strait to give those chicks a better start in life.
The shy albatross is a very difficult animal to observe and study. Once youngsters leave their natal island, they may not return for five or more years. We know very little about how far albatross roam during this extended period at sea and what threats they encounter. By satellite-tracking juvenile birds, we hope to gain a better understanding of what challenges shy albatross face - especially the impacts of fisheries and climate change.
Why it matters
Just 15,350 pairs of shy albatross breed on three tiny islands off the coast of Tasmania: aptly-named Albatross Island in the north, and the Pedra Branca and Mewstone islands in the south and it is crucial that we support these populations before they reach critical levels. Being such a large bird, the albatross has high energy needs and spends a large part of its life feeding. If a high-level predator like this is not faring well, then there's every chance the entire ecosystem is under stress.
Length: Wingspan of up to 2.6 m and approximately 90 cm in body length Weight: Approximately 4 kg
Vulnerable in Australia and near threatened (IUCN Red List) Estimated population left in wild: 15,350 breeding pairs
Did you know?
Shy albatross feeding at sea spend almost the entire time on the wing, resting only occasionally on the ocean's surface.
Every year, fewer shy albatross offspring are returning to breed. Deaths are attributed to the ingestion of marine pollution and plastics, longline fishing in the waters off South Africa and climate change. Juvenile birds from the Mewstone population are known to traverse the Indian Ocean and forage in waters off South Africa, which brings them into contact with several fisheries that pose a bycatch threat. Animals living in Bass Strait are at the mercy of the weather, literally, and albatross are experiencing rapid changes on land and sea. The are also compounded by other threats, such as bycatch. Increased air temperatures during the chick rearing period are reducing breeding success. Plus, extreme weather, like storms, pose additional dangers and disease has also been identified as an important threat to the stability of albatross populations with virulence linked to environmental variables, in particular to rainfall and temperature.
What you can do to help
- Dispose of plastics thoughtfully and clean up rubbish along our coastlines. If plastics and other rubbish find their way into our seas and oceans it can be life-threatening to the albatross.
- When shopping for seafood, choose accredited products. The MSC works to encourage sustainable fishing practices including efforts to reduce bycatch. Look for the blue MSC label on sustainable fish and seafood in shops and restaurants.