October 27, 2005

International albatross plan proposes new colonies

By Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - With almost all of the
world's remaining short-tailed albatrosses breeding on a steep
slope of a Japanese volcanic island that is subject to
eruptions, mudslides and erosion, an international team of
scientists has a proposal to help the endangered birds -- lure
them to a safer island.

The relocation idea, part of a draft recovery plan released
on Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, involves the
use of decoys and recorded bird calls to make some other site
seem as enticing as Torishima Island.

The approximately 2,000 short-tailed albatrosses left in
the world spend their winters on the remote Japanese island but
spend their summers spread out over Alaska's southern

It will be a daunting challenge to convince the
albatrosses, which mate for life and are fiercely loyal to
their places of birth, to change breeding sites, agency
officials acknowledge.

"You're not going to get adults to change. If there's a
bunch of lava coming down and they're incubating an egg,
they're just going to sit right there and let the lava roll
right over them," said Greg Balogh, a Fish and Wildlife Service
biologist who is coordinating the recovery plan.

Rather, the plan focuses on chicks, which might form
attachments to new places if moved at the correct time, he
said. A new island has not yet been chosen for the birds.

Already, Japanese authorities have been using decoys and
recorded colony sounds to establish a tiny new breeding site on
the other side of Torishima Island, where the terrain is less
perilous, Balogh said.

The short-tailed albatross was once ubiquitous in the North
Pacific. The birds, known for their large size, wide wingspan,
white plumage and long flight distances, were once so plentiful
that Alaska mariners likened them to snowflakes in the sky.

Hunters harvesting their feathers for bedding and pens
nearly wiped them out by the early 20th century. But with
hunting ended, Torishima's tumultuous state is the main source
of peril to the birds, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Other threats include entanglements with fishing gear, oil
spills and ingestion of plastic debris, which the birds confuse
with food. Commercial fishermen in Alaska have already started
using shield-like devices to prevent albatrosses and other sea
birds from attaching themselves to fish-laden hooks.

The birds have endangered-species protections in the United
States, Japan and Canada and the recovery plan has been noted
for its international participation, Balogh said.

"International endangered species recovery is actually
pretty darned unusual," Balogh said.