Like many other one-time mariners I have a very special affection for the albatross. I remember so well, while serving in the Royal Navy, standing on the deck of a fast-moving ship in one of the Southern oceans, watching an albatross maintaining perfect position alongside for hour after hour, and apparently day after day. It is a sight I will never forget. And only the other day there was further evidence of the mystery and majesty of these birds when a satellite-tagging research project proved what we have long suspected - that some quite literally circumnavigate the globe and the fastest does it in just forty-six days.
I find it hard – no, impossible – to accept that these birds might one day be lost for ever. Yet that does now seem to be a real possibility unless we, and others around the world, can make a sufficient fuss to prevent it. In 1996, three of the twenty-one species of albatross were officially listed as threatened. Four years later, when I sat down to write an article expressing my concerns about the decline of these magnificent birds, the total threatened species had risen to sixteen. Another five years on, and nineteen of the twenty-one species of albatross are now under global threat of extinction with some species now numbering under one hundred individuals. The albatross family is now the biggest single bird family with every one of its members under threat.
Their plight should remind us of the ultimate fragility of all the migratory species – not least the swallows, swifts and house martins – that mark the great cycle of the seasons and the mysterious, inner unseen urge that compels such creatures to follow, with unerring accuracy, the timeless patterns of movement around this globe. They are now dependent upon our whim – yes, our whim… I have always felt that if their wanderings should cease through man's insensitive hand and that magical moment of a swallow's first arrival (or an albatross's return) disrupted forever, then it would be as if one's heart had been torn out. If this were to happen – and we are rapidly approaching the very real possibility with all twenty-one species of albatross – then we would sacrifice any claim whatsoever to call ourselves civilized beings. We will have violated something profoundly sacred in the inner workings of nature, and our descendants will pay dearly for the consequences of this and other acts of short-term folly.
But to return to the noble birds nesting here at Taiaroa Head. I don't need to tell this audience that the most potent force driving the members of the albatross family to extinction is longline fishing, which is estimated to kill one hundred thousand albatrosses every year. And even here in New Zealand, the albatross capital of the world where fourteen of the twenty-one species breed, it is estimated that around ten thousand albatrosses and petrels are killed in your waters each year.
What makes this situation so particularly galling is that these deaths are completely avoidable. The technology is simple, inexpensive and very effective. What is required are bird scaring lines which keep birds away from hooks during line setting; line weighting to sink hooks more quickly making them inaccessible to birds; fishing at night when most seabirds are less active; and ensuring that offal from fish processing is not discharged while lines are fed out. From well regulated longline fisheries, careful monitoring has proved beyond any doubt that using the right combination of these measures reduces the seabird by-catch to virtually zero. This is not rocket science, just good basic fisheries management and these measures are already mandatory for vessels fishing in Antarctic waters under international agreement. But, as we have seen, these birds are enormously wide-ranging, encountering a succession of fleets and fisheries as they wander the oceans, so the real challenge is to make these solutions mandatory on every longline vessel, not just some.
So the good news is that there are easy solutions. But it is frustrating, to say the least, that it is taking so long for them to be implemented worldwide. I know that under the UN Food and Agriculture Organization countries are encouraged, voluntarily, to develop and put in place National Plans of Action for Seabirds which set targets and timetables for the reduction in albatross and petrel deaths. These have an important part to play, but this only deals with a country's own waters. But the threat to the albatross is a truly international problem demanding an international solution and that is why I have been doing what little I can to encourage countries to ratify the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. I do particularly congratulate New Zealand and Australia for the leadership which they have given to the rest of the world. Ecuador, South Africa, Spain and the United Kingdom have all ratified, and only the other day Peru joined this list of countries determined to make a difference.
The bad news is that the problem of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing appears to be worsening in many parts of the world, although there are encouraging signs of a reduction in parts of the Southern Ocean. It may well be that a few high profile chases and arrests of offending vessels may have contributed to this welcome improvement. There are believed to be hundreds of these substantial pirate vessels, typically operating under “flags of convenience”, recognizing no rules and – with few exceptions – evading every sort of sanction and penalty available under international law. It is estimated that they are responsible for about one third of the total albatross and petrel deaths each year. But that is not the total extent of the environmental havoc they are wreaking. They are denuding the oceans of many of our rarest fish, not least the Patagonian Toothfish, sold under “consumer-friendly” aliases, such as Chilean Sea Bass in the USA and Mero in Japan.
But there is a more general point here, which is that our stewardship of the world's oceans has been truly appalling. We have polluted them, used them as dumps for every sort of waste, and exploited most of their fish stocks beyond the point at which they can maintain their numbers. Over 75 per cent of the world's fish stocks are now classified as either fully exploited, over-fished or in a fragile state of recovery. And yet, just as with the whole debate about climate change some twenty years ago, not enough people seem to want to listen. It is, quite literally, a case of “out of sight out of mind”. But what on earth is the point of “running into a brick wall” before we wake up to what we are doing and then find it is too late to replenish the stocks of particularly vulnerable species of fish?
This is a subject which is occupying many minds in the United Kingdom and the European Union at the moment. An idea which is gaining ground there and in many parts of the world is “no-take zones” or “marine parks”. I know from the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand that seasonal “no-take zones”, while birds are feeding, are now being considered here. They would not only be crucial for the survival of the albatross and petrels, but they also have the potential to allow fish stocks to regenerate and provide natural reservoirs from which other areas of the ocean can be repopulated.
There is so much more that I could say on this subject but I would just leave you with this one thought. To me, the albatross may be the ultimate test of whether or not, as a species ourselves, we are serious about conservation: capable of co-existing on this planet with other species. None of the short cuts and quick fixes that might help some other species will help the albatross. Despite the remarkable work done here at Taiaroa Head, no nature reserve will ever be big enough to encompass more than a fraction of such a nomadic bird's total requirements. No single nation state can take much effective unilateral action, rather it calls for a major effort of international co-operation, and for the regional fisheries bodies to demand seabird-friendly fishing of all the vessels plying their waters. And there is not much time left. The clock is ticking fast and even if mortality from longlining were, somehow, to be stopped overnight, the rate of decline in the populations and the exceptionally slow rate at which albatross species breed are such that recovery would take many decades.
As far as I am concerned, the plight of the albatross is a symbol of the emptiness of too much of the rhetoric surrounding so-called ‘sustainable development'. Will it take the complete dodo-like disappearance of this noble, winged creature to bring us to our senses? Or are we to remain blind and deaf to the appalling tragedy unfolding, out of sight and out of mind, in the vast foam-flecked spaces of the Southern Ocean? Whatever the case, it would be a shameful travesty of our duty as stewards of this increasingly fragile globe if we couldn't find a way of living our lives in such a manner that these magnificent birds can continue to share the same planet with us.
Incidentally, I find it incredible that we live in a world which is so comprehensively industrialized that we can allow the kind of intensive fishing methods that slaughter countless thousands of dolphins and porpoises, let alone all sorts of other species which have no means of escape, and that cause untold damage to fragile ecosystems on the floor of the oceans. Do you not feel the sheer unmentionable waste of it all to be so obscene? I shudder to think of the shattered world we will leave our children and grandchildren unless we moderate our insatiable appetite for the quick return and the quick fix.
I can only commend the remarkable work being done here by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society for New Zealand, who I know work closely with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK and Birdlife International. You are a true beacon of hope and I do congratulate you on all that you are doing to secure the future of these iconic and magical birds.