At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God‘s name.

Tonight is a particularly special occasion, not only because it provides me with another opportunity to do what I can to raise awareness of the plight of the albatross, but because it allows me to acknowledge publicly three extraordinary people of whom this nation is justly proud.

Dame Ellen MacArthur is, without doubt, one of the most remarkable people of her generation. Her kind of courage, stamina and sheer determination are hard to find. Her record-breaking, solo round-the-world journey was followed by countless numbers of people who, I am sure, could well understand how utterly exhausted this marathon expedition had left her. There was a huge national feeling of relief when she arrived back safe and sound – and, of course, triumphant. She will know, probably better than anyone else here, that sense of companionship which albatrosses give sailors as they fly alongside – something I remember so well from my time in the Royal Navy when I was desperately trying to find out where the hell I was! Incidentally, ladies and gentlemen, you might be interested to know that I have a particular pride in Ellen because, as well as everything else that she does, she is also an ambassador for my Prince's Trust and I can think of few better role models for young people than her and I am enormously grateful to her for giving up her time for the young and inspiring others.

Also here this evening is one of those great British duos who have single-handedly – or should I say double-handedly – done more for the albatross, probably, than any other. This time last year, John and Marie-Christine Ridgway were nearing the end of their eleven-month, 28,000 mile sea voyage to highlight the plight of the albatross. They might not have won any speed races against Ellen, but they certainly won countless hearts and admirers. They sailed from their home in Ardmore, North West Scotland, to Cape Town, Melbourne, Wellington and the Falklands. The RSPB and BirdLife organized events at the various stopovers, with the result that this very special couple collected well over 100,000 signatures, from 131 different countries, for a petition pressing governments to take urgent action to stamp out pirate fishing. John, Marie-Christine, and Dr Euan Dunn of the RSPB presented this petition in Rome at a meeting of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and I can think of few more hard-won or heartfelt documents ever delivered to the UN. And if I might speak on behalf of everyone here, I would just like to say that our admiration for John and Marie-Christine is utterly boundless and, in comparison, the efforts of the rest of us seem, to say the least, somewhat inadequate.

Just a few months ago, as part of what I have been trying to do to draw attention to the albatross tragedy, I managed to fulfil a particular ambition and visited the Northern Royal Albatross colony at Taiaroa Head on New Zealand's South Island. These birds are some of the biggest and most impressive of the albatross species, and some twenty to thirty of them nest here each year. The extraordinary lifestyle of the birds becomes clear when you realize that they travel back and forth to the Tasman Sea, taking days to do so, in order to find food for the one chick which each pair produces, and that on these journeys, they have been recorded flying at a speed of 115 kilometres per hour. Recently it has been proved that some albatrosses circumnavigate the world in forty-six days: which means that in the time it took Ellen to complete her historic journey, the albatross could have been more than halfway around the world for the second time! I think we will have to get Ellen more aero-dynamic!

During my visit, I sat literally a foot away from one of these magnificent birds, as it gazed trustingly and quizzically with its extraordinarily endearing features - without fear – at this strange intruder surrounded by people with exceptionally large cameras. It made me think that there is no greater symbol of man's lunacy than our excessive industrialized fishing systems, using lines stretching out eighty miles - I thought it was a typing error some years ago - behind huge fishing boats which hook and drown 100,000 of these mysteriously unafraid and serene birds each year. And to make matters worse, many of these boats are fishing for Patagonian Toothfish, another remarkable species which lives for more than fifty years and only breeds after ten and as you all probably know we are now fishing for species at ever greater depths. How can we provide for the future? 

So, in order to make a difference, there are two issues which need to be urgently addressed. First, firm measures must be taken to manage all Toothfish stocks sustainably – and there is a good example of how to do this in South Georgia where the fishing is accredited by the Marine Stewardship Council. Secondly, and as part of that, we must tackle the pirate fishing which is destroying Toothfish stocks and seabirds alike. Without these measures, in many areas of the Southern Ocean the Toothfish will very soon be joining the albatross on the endangered species list. I, for one, happen to think that this flagrant abuse of our marine ecosystems is the worst possible example of man's short-sightedness in an increasingly throwaway society. And, as stewards of this Earth, a throwaway earth at that or what it has become – which, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are (or should be) - we should all feel deeply ashamed of it.

I know that everyone in this room shares my strength of feeling about the albatross, otherwise you wouldn't be here. What makes the situation particularly frustrating is that there are simple and accepted techniques which could substantially reduce seabird loss if they were widely implemented. Line weighting, bird scarers and the practice of setting lines at night have all been shown to be extremely effective. And that is why I am so delighted to be here tonight, supporting the latest initiative of the RSPB and BirdLife International's Save the Albatross Campaign, called “Operation Ocean Task Force”. The objective is to fund and co-ordinate a team of people who are experts in mitigation measures, and who can train long-line fishermen (this is the great secret) on shore and at sea in regions where the albatross is most at threat. As you can imagine, such an exercise will demand considerable manpower and, to be effective, it must operate for at least three years. It is to make this initiative possible that we are gathered here this evening, and so I do hope that it will be given every possible support.

But this excellent initiative is just one example of the great efforts being made by many people and organizations across the world to address the plight of the albatross. The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) came into force in 2004. This is a tremendous step forward, and one which will improve the conservation status of albatross and petrels by managing risks to the birds both at sea and in their breeding colonies. But, so far, only six countries (shortly to be seven, as we believe that Peru is about to ratify) have ratified the agreement, including the United Kingdom, although several countries with breeding albatrosses or southern ocean fishing fleets are in the process of doing so. However, there are some countries missing from the list, particularly those operating fishing fleets in areas where albatrosses and petrels occur. These countries have some of the world's largest longline fishing fleets, so it is easy to see why they have a critical part to play in protecting these birds and why it would make such a huge difference if they were to ratify and translate the albatross agreement into action at sea.

More also needs to be done to encourage these countries, and others, to put in place voluntary National Plans of Action for Seabirds, plans which set targets and timetables for reducing albatross and petrel deaths in their own waters. And the world's Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, which are responsible for regulating fisheries on the high seas, must ensure that the vessels plying their waters take all possible measures to stop seabirds from being killed.

Now, I referred a moment ago to the RSPB and BirdLife International – so, before I finish, I would just like to pay tribute to the excellent work which is being done by Professor John Croxall, Dr Euan Dunn and his dedicated team, and Dr Mike Rands. Theirs, I promise you, is a most impressive campaign and I know just how great a personal commitment they have made to the cause.

Ladies and gentlemen, all I can say is that time is running out, it really is. Nineteen out of twenty-one species of albatross are now threatened with extinction around the world. I, for one, simply cannot sit here and do nothing while this inexcusable, man-made tragedy goes on out of sight and out of mind in the far oceans. The future of the albatross is a crucial test of just how serious we are about sustainability. The measures which could make a difference are so simple to take. And yet, in a world where so much is reduced to the level of utter absurdity and mind-numbing trivia, it is hard to see at what point these issues will be taken seriously. So do we have to hit a brick wall before we wake up? The albatross is an iconic bird – one of the most remarkable and beautiful on this Earth – and I pray with all my heart and soul that Mankind may wake up in time to recognize that, in our hands, we hold the key to its very existence.

At length did cross an Albatross,
Thorough the fog it came;
As if it had been a Christian soul,
We hailed it in God‘s name.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner