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New research points to fishing bycatch as a major cause of the alarming decline of Antipodean albatrosses. The report underlines the need for urgent action to fix New Zealand's fishing rules, and save a bird with the same threat status as the kākāpō, Forest & Bird says.

The Department of Conservation report, published late last year, confirms the number of female Antipodean albatross has fallen to 42% of their 2004 numbers. The species has a 'nationally critical' threat status.

“The Antipodean albatross is one of the great albatrosses of the world, with a wingspan of three metres or more. We have a special responsibility to protect this bird which breeds almost exclusively on our Antipodes Island in the Subantarctic,” says Forest & Bird seabird advocate Sue Maturin.

“The research, which tracked albatross by satellite, strongly indicates fishing bycatch is one of the main reasons for the alarming decline in the female population. This is why we urgently need better rules for commercial fishing boats, and to do our absolute best to keep these majestic birds from needlessly dying on longline hooks.”

The research by scientists Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott for the Department of Conservation showed that of 16 female Antipodean albatrosses being monitored with tracking devices in 2019, two appear to have been caught and killed by longline fishing vessels.

The death of a female fledged chick was confirmed by an international observer on the vessel involved. In the other case, the report stated the bird was 'likely' to have been killed by a longliner, as the 16-year-old female’s transmitter stopped suddenly when its path crossed the monitored route of a fishing vessel in waters east of New Zealand. Forest & Bird has published a video about the young albatross here.

“These initial satellite tracking results suggest bycatch in fisheries is at a level consistent with bycatch as explanatory of the low female survival observed,” the Antipodean wandering albatross census and population study on Antipodes Island 2019 report said.

A large number of the birds are believed to be killed by foreign fishing vessels in international waters. They are also killed in New Zealand's longline fisheries, and the numbers actually caught are likely to be much higher than those reported because of the low rates of observers on commercial boats, the report states.

Five Antipodean albatross killed by a New Zealand longline fishing boat in the Bay of Plenty region were  just one of 30 species of seabird killed in New Zealand fisheries last year.

“Up to 14,000 birds were killed by New Zealand fishing boats last year,” Ms Maturin says. “New Zealand's fishing industry has pledged to aim for a zero bycatch target, so why are they - unlike our birds - being let off the hook so easily? This year, New Zealand has a chance to fix our fishing rules and do something positive for these beautiful albatrosses.”

“Forest & Bird has declared 2020 to be the Year of the Seabird. Nearly all of our seabirds are threatened with or at risk of extinction, so we need to urgently improve the rules that allow them to be killed so easily.”

Submissions are open on a draft National Plan of Action for Seabirds until 27 January, and Forest & Bird is asking people to demand better fishing rules online here.   

“Fishing is the key factor in the seabird crisis that we can fix.That’s why Forest & Bird are asking for a zero bycatch goal, cameras on commercial boats, binding actions and rules and an end to set netting in the habitat of threatened species such as hoiho.”  

Note: The Antipodean wandering albatross census and population study on Antipodes Island 2019 report can be found here.

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