18 Apr 2024

Summer 34 – Three decades of albatross research

From Voice of Tangaroa, 5:00 am on 18 April 2024
Two large albatrosses with brown-white plumage stand on a bare patch of soil among an expanse of tussock. The albatrosses are angled towards each other with beaks slightly open and the one on the right has its wings outstretched. The ocean is visible in the distance, beneath a sky streaked with dark grey clouds.

Richard Robinson encountered these Antipodean albatrosses socialising on an empty nest, “making a hell of a lot of noise”. The albatross on the right is part of the mark-recapture study. He received his leg band as a chick in 2002, and lived at sea for several years before returning to Antipodes Island in 2010. He was spotted courting a female albatross in 2012 and 2013, and the pair made it official in 2014, raising a chick together. But his mate hasn’t been seen again since, and he’s been hanging around for close to a decade now without a partner. Photo: © Richard Robinson

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Gibson’s and Antipodean albatrosses are citizens of no one nation. They are ocean birds, living on the wind and waves, travelling massive distances, passing back and forth over the high seas and the imaginary boundary lines we draw on maps.  

But when they land to chat, to flirt, to lay an egg and raise a chick, they come to two of New Zealand’s subantarctic islands.  

Three decades of albatross study 

And when they return, some of them meet with two familiar human faces.  

Across the last 34 years, Department of Conservation researchers Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott have been visiting these islands to count the birds, and to study them.    

At first everything seemed fine. In the early 1990s numbers were low but increasing. Things were positive. Then came the summer of 2006/2007. There was a population crash, reason still unknown, and on both islands, albatross numbers plummeted.   

These albatrosses don’t breed until they at least eight-years-old, only breed every two years, and tend to mate for life. Since the crash, Gibson’s albatross numbers have come back slightly, but Antipodean albatross numbers continue to decline.  

And adult birds, especially females, are still going missing.  

Hooks don’t discriminate 

Tuna fishing boats use a method called surface longlining to catch their prey. The lines can be up to 100 kilometres long, with thousands of hooks.  

Squid is used as bait, a tasty morsel for tuna. Unfortunately, albatrosses agree.  

Using satellite tags Graeme and Kath have watched missing albatrosses’ paths overlap with those of boats, and in one case, in which leg bands and the satellite tag were returned to them, follow the path of the boat.  

Listen as science journalist Rebekah White explores the albatross bycatch problem, and what we could do about it.  

A man wearing a red-orange jacket stands on the deck of a vessel at night. He is looking down at a large dead albatross cradled in his arms, which has a hook protruding from its beak attached to a long coil of green fishing line.

This juvenile albatross was hooked by a Japanese tuna longliner east of Tasmania. The man cradling the bird – to demonstrate its size – is a crew member of an Australian patrol vessel. Photo: Graham Robertson

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Photo: NZ On Air

Voice of Tangaroa is a joint production between RNZ’s Our Changing World and New Zealand Geographic

Reporting for this series is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air. You can learn more and read the articles for free at www.nzgeo.com/seas. Live Ocean Foundation supported some of the travel costs for this story.