ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A short-tailed albatross died as a result of being caught on a longline fishing hook in Alaska -- in what is believed to be the first recorded death of one of the endangered birds by a U.S. commercial fishing vessel since 1998.
The American Bird Conservancy says the bird that was killed in the Bering Sea wore a metal leg band identifying it was a 7 1/2 year old bird from Torishima Island in Japan. That is where the majority of short-tailed albatross breed.
The short-tailed albatross, whose population once numbered in the millions, was devastated by commercial feather hunting at the turn of the century. The birds were thought to be extinct after 1939 when a volcano exploded on the island, but a few young at sea prevented that from happening. The birds, listed as endangered, now number about 3,000.
A federal program has helped greatly reduce the number of albatross deaths caused by commercial fishing. The problem is known as bycatch, or the unintended capture of a non-targeted species. What happens is short-tailed albatross, and other species as well, dive for the baited hooks from longliners.
The problem has been longstanding, prompting a program begun in 1990 to gather information by placing federal observers aboard U.S. fishing boats. Since then, the conservation group says mitigation strategies have greatly reduced the number of all albatross killed by commercial fishing.
The short-tailed albatross killed in late August was hooked on a long line from a cod fishing boat. Most often, the birds are killed while baited hooks attached to long lines are dropped into the water from the stern of the boat. The birds go for the baited hooks before the lines sink under the surface.
"The Alaskan fisheries have made great strides in avoiding seabird bycatch," said Jessica Hardesty Norris, director of the conservation group's Seabird Program. "However, this incident highlights the need to move forward with an improved fisheries observer program."
The Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of the councils that oversees the nation's fisheries, next month will consider changes to the program, including expanding the observer program to include fishing vessels under 60 feet and halibut boats.
Observers aboard more boats will help ensure that the mitigation measures are being used, Norris said. Mitigation measures include fishing at night when birds are less active, weighting fishing lines so that the baited hooks sink more quickly and using long streamers that scare away the birds.
Commercial fishermen have a lot at stake, Norris said. If four short-tailed albatross are caught over a two-year period the specific fishery must shut down, she said.
The changes could go into effect by 2013, said Martin Loefflad, director of the observer program for NOAA Fisheries.
The short-tailed albatross breeds only in Japan, but there is a sign that could change as early as next year. There is a pair in Hawaii that appears to be gearing up to breed. Three years ago they looked at each other, last year they danced and this year they actually built a nest, Norris said.
Perhaps, next year they will mate, she said.
"Hopefully, we will have the first short-tailed albatross hatched on U.S. soil in decades," she said.