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Grim warning for endangered albatross as long-line fishing blamed for continued decline

Forest and Bird has issued a grim warning to the incoming Labour Government: do more to protect our antipodean albatrosses, or they will go extinct.

An antipodean albatross caught as bycatch on a long-line fishing vessel. Source: Supplied/Forest and Bird

A Department of Conservation study released this year suggests that about 35,000 of the seabirds have died in unknown circumstances, over and above their normal mortality rate, since 2009.

Among the most striking findings in the report came from a survey carried out on Antipodes Island during the 2019/20 summer, which noted that while survival of breeding female albatrosses had increased slightly from past years, it was still "unsustainable".

"Only 75 pairs nested in the study area in 2020, amongst the lowest recorded, but female survival in 2019 had increased over previous years, at least amongst non-breeding females," the report said.

"Breeding female survivorship in 2019 was at an unsustainable 74 per cent, though this estimate was likely affected by the late timing of Antipodes Island fieldwork in 2020.

"There is so far, no evidence of the sustained improvement in female survival necessary for the population to recover."

Two Antipodean wandering albatrosses. Source: Kath Walker

Forest and Bird chief executive Kevin Hague called it "a disastrous situation" and said the species could be "functionally extinct within 20-30 years".

"It’s likely that many of those 35,000 birds were killed by fishing long liners on the high seas - bycatch is the greatest known threat to these magnificent birds," Hague said.

"There are ways to fish without catching seabirds; bycatch is something we can fix - thanks to support from a great number of New Zealanders we’ve made progress.

"Over 10,000 people signed Forest and Bird's zero bycatch petition, and 3000 Forest and Bird supporters made submissions on the Seabird Plan of Action, which now has a zero bycatch goal.

"We've long called for cameras on boats, which after many delays, we hope will finally be going ahead - but for Antipodean Albatross, a long-lived late-breeding species that spend most of their lives at sea, this is not enough.

"We desperately need a finalised all-of-Government action plan for this species, more resources, bilateral talks between countries, binding actions and rules, and increased observers as well as cameras on our boats."

Hague pointed to an incident last year in which five albatross died in a single fishing long-line.

Sea Shepherd New Zealand director Michael Lawry was dismayed to see the number of birds that have died.

"This is really sad news for the seabird capital of the world and one that will focus more international attention on our fishing industry," Lawry said.

"We need to be doing an awful lot better around bycatch of not only seabirds but also dolphins, seals and sea lions if we are going to avoid negative consequences to our export market."

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