Seabirds reaching critical levels

The Illawarra Birders’ education officer Martin Potter has been on at least six ‘‘pelagic’’ tours. Picture: ROBERT PEET A black-browed albatross rides the thermal currents. Picture: ROBERT PEET

Time may well and truly be running out for the albatrosses that live in the waters off Wollongong.

The Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association (SOSSA) arose in 1994 from the NSW Albatross Study Group, which was formed in 1956.

SOSSA president Lindsay Smith said while they study other birds, it is the various breeds of albatross that they focus on.

To date, Mr Smith said they have tagged and banded more than 20,000 wandering albatrosses on their regular research trips at least 15 kilometres offshore.

While the research has proven illuminating for the study of the birds’ lifespan and migratory habits, it has also highlighted a fact that greatly worries Mr Smith.

‘‘What we’ve learned over the years is that albatross numbers are in very, very serious decline,’’ he said.

‘‘Just about all species of albatross are regarded as endangered species and some are regarded as critically endangered.’’

Disease and the feral animals that live on the birds’ nesting islands are part of the problem, but Mr Smith said the main threat is the practice of long-line fishing, which he claimed kills well over 40,000 wandering albatross a year.

‘‘The population of these birds cannot withstand that sort of decline,’’he said.

‘‘These birds are living on a knife’s edge. They’re very long-lived, very slow to mature and very slow to breed.

‘‘What happens is each wandering albatross, without any outside factors affecting it, has to live for a minimum of 30years just to replace itself in the population.’’

Part of the problem SOSSA has in raising awareness of the issue is that it’s very much a case of out of sight, out of mind for the albatross. They spend most of their lives out at sea, so we seldom see them.

‘‘That’s exactly the problem,’’ Mr Smith said.

‘‘Albatrosses only come to land to breed, and in the case of the wandering albatross, most of them don’t breed until about 12-20years of age.

‘‘Then they can only breed once every two years, because it takes 11months for them to raise a chick.’’

To educate the public about albatrosses and other seabirds, SOSSA regularly charters a boat – the Sandra K – for what are called pelagics.

These take passengers – who are mainly birdwatchers – 15km out to sea where the albatrosses and other seabirds live.

That’s a long way out, way past all those hulking tankers and ships waiting to dock at Port Kembla.

One of those who made the trip on the Sandra K last Friday was Martin Potter, the education officer of Illawarra Birders as well as editor of the group’s newsletter. He said he had been on the trip to see the various seabirds at least six times.

Even though he tends to see the same birds each time, it doesn’t dissuade him from going.

‘‘You see something different every time,’’ Mr Potter said.

‘‘Even the same birds, you’ll see them doing different things or get a better view of them and be able to take better photos.’’

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