A bird of unsurpassed grace and beauty, living its entire life in the wildest and most remote oceans, and without economic value, seems an unlikely candidate for extinction at the hand of man, in this or any other century. Yet that is exactly the fate that now hangs over most of the twenty four species of albatross with which we share our planet. In 1996, three of those species were officially listed as 'threatened'. Four years later, the total is sixteen, of which several are close to extinction.
No-one who has seen an albatross on the wing is ever likely to forget the experience. Just about the only way to do so is from the deck of a ship, in one of the southern oceans, and that was certainly how I came to know and love these magnificent creatures, while serving in the Royal Navy. With the largest wingspan of any bird (up to eleven feet), capable of flying the Atlantic in six days, touching down on dry land only to breed, and living to more than sixty years of age, the bare facts are remarkable enough. Yet the reality of an albatross sweeping along beside a ship, or just behind it, for hour after hour is awe-inspiring. Perhaps this is because it stands out as the only living thing in sight, beyond the confines of the ship. Or perhaps because, to an old aviator like myself, the sheer aeronautical grace and agility of an albatross mocks the laboured progress of even the most powerful frigate. Whatever the reason, the sight is one that I will never forget and I find it impossible to accept that it might one day be lost for ever.
It has to be said that no-one is killing albatrosses deliberately, nor profiting directly from their demise. Yet they are dying in their thousands. The cause of death is drowning. An albatross lives by taking fish from the surface of the ocean and knows from experience that there are often easy pickings to be had in the wake of ships. But an increasing number of those ships are now engaged in a form of commercial fishing known as longlining. Each ship sets anything up to eighty miles of line equipped with thousands of baited hooks, in search of high value fish such as tuna and swordfish. The problem occurs as the baits enter the water. Any accompanying albatross sees a free meal, swoops down and, if the hook takes hold, is dragged inexorably to its death. If this happened, even occasionally, in public view the outcry would be immense. But, like so much that happens at sea, it is very much out of sight and out of mind.
It is difficult even to assess the precise scale of this indiscriminate slaughter. An albatross will fly thousands of miles every week in search of food and much of the fishing is illegal, or at least takes place far from any monitoring process. Nevertheless, it is clear that some tens of thousands of these birds are drowned by fishing gear every year. BirdLife International has played a major role in highlighting the need for environmentally-friendly fishing to protect seabirds. It points out that, since the biggest albatrosses may take ten years or more to reach breeding age, and then produce only one chick every other year, the impact of these losses on overall numbers is severe and unsustainable.
British scientists are in no doubt that longlining is to blame for the relentless decline (by nearly a third) in the numbers of Wandering Albatrosses on Bird Island, South Georgia, since the 1960s. Hooks, broken lines and other longline debris even turn up in the food that the parent birds regurgitate to their unsuspecting chicks.
Tempting though it may be, we cannot just condemn long-line fishing. Firstly, one of the reasons for its recent increase has been that other methods have been banned, precisely because of the damage they cause to seabirds, dolphins, turtles and other marine life. Secondly, experience has shown that it is possible to take a few simple measures which will almost entirely eliminate losses from longlining. Setting lines under water, or only at night, trailing a bird-scaring line, prohibiting offal discharge while fishing and observing a closed season at the most vulnerable times have all proved effective.
Responsible and well-regulated fisheries are not only insisting on these and other measures, they are placing observers aboard to ensure that they are followed and to monitor the results. But many fisheries still decline to take such firm action. Only concerted international pressure, from Governments and from individual consumers, is likely to persuade them to do so.
There is also a growing problem of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. These 'pirate' vessels often operate under flags of convenience. They recognize no rules and manage to evade every sort of sanction and penalty available under international law. A recent UN report suggests that illegal fishing has doubled in the last ten years, and may now account for one quarter of the world's total fish catch.
The illegal fishery for the Patagonian toothfish, generally known by one of its more consumer friendly aliases, such as Antarctic sea bass, is the biggest single threat to the albatross. Thousands of tons of this valuable fish are smuggled into black-market ports every year, but it isn't only the albatrosses which are threatened by this particular form of anarchy. The Patagonian toothfish is now itself endangered. Indeed, the Australian government has said that if fishing continues at current levels the species faces commercial extinction. Living up to fifty years, and taking ten years to reach breeding age, it is a slow-growing creature which is being killed faster than it can replace itself. Just like the albatross, in fact, though even less visible.
Perhaps it is worth asking why the Patagonian toothfish, living in deep and distant waters, should have become the subject of a latter day gold rush? The answer is simply that all of the more accessible fisheries have largely been ruined. Sixty per cent of the world's fisheries are now assessed as either fully exploited or over-exploited. The renowned Grand Banks cod fishery off the coast of Newfoundland was closed in 1992 to allow stocks to recover, and forty thousand people lost their livelihoods. Eight years later there is still no real sign of recovery. Scientists now suggest that the Irish Sea and North Sea cod fisheries may be on the brink of a similar collapse.
In fact, the harder one looks at the problems of the world's oceans, the more unsustainable practices one discovers. Fishing vessels have become ever more powerful, both in terms of engine capacity, fishing gear and high tech fish-detection equipment, yet global fish catches have remained level, with the total at just below one hundred million tonnes each year. As these vessels range further and further afield, the livelihoods of countless small-scale fishermen in some of the world's poorest countries simply disappear. At the same time, more and more species are harvested to the point at which they cannot reproduce fast enough to maintain their numbers.
It is a profoundly depressing picture but, as with the plight of the albatross, there are things that can be done to achieve sustainability. Measures to achieve a general reduction in fishing pressure and to ensure that environmental objectives are incorporated into fisheries management are essential. Consumer pressure has a part to play too. The Marine Stewardship Council's labelling scheme for sustainably produced seafood provides a real opportunity for individual consumers to make an informed choice. As more and more fisheries are certified we will increasingly be able to purchase fish without worrying about the state of the fishery or the damage caused to other marine life.
More controversially, I have always thought that more could be done to limit the use of over-powerful technology in fishing, swinging the balance back towards smaller-scale fisheries and the coastal communities they support. A prominent Scandinavian politician once dismissed this view as 'wanting to put the clock back' and thoroughly inefficient. But if the alternative is overfishing, with collapsing fish stocks, a devastated marine ecosystem and local unemployment, a little more 'inefficiency' might be worth considering, providing it does not compromise safety at sea. On land, we encourage traditional management regimes through the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme. Perhaps we should consider applying the same principle in some parts of the marine environment?
Restraining any activity that takes place at sea runs strongly against the prevailing ethos, but there are already some interesting examples of what can be achieved through fishing free zones in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Closer to home, the Cornish Fish Producers Association have regional support for their proposed fishing-free zone in the south-western approaches. It remains to be seen whether such a zone can be achieved, but it would certainly be an interesting pilot exercise, and a way of building on the increasing recognition that fishermen and environmentalists share the same vision of abundant fish stocks in healthy seas.
All this may seem a long way from the plight of the albatross, but the basic question is the same. Can we find the necessary combination of scientific and traditional knowledge, technical skill, management ability, consumer pressure and political will to get the world's fisheries, however gradually, back to sustainability? If we can't, it won't just be the albatross species that will suffer.