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Endangered Seabird Survives Japanese Tsunami
Friday, 18 March 2011 00:00  |  Written by Heidi Auman, Ph.D. | Blog Entry

Short-tailed Albatross photo by James LloydA rare and precious albatross chick, remnant of a besieged population historically stricken by both human predation and natural disasters, has survived the deluge of the recent Pacific tsunami. The endangered short-tailed albatross is snow-white with a golden head and nape, and a massive pink bill with a powder-blue tip. With a wingspan of up to 7.5 feet, this soaring wanderer was once considered one of the most common North Pacific seabirds.

According to the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels species assessment, it was killed to supply feathers for the millinery industry, carcasses were rendered for oil and then processed into fertilizer, and its eggs collected for food. Between 1885 and 1903, an estimated five million were slaughtered. Japan’s Torishima Island, the main breeding site, bears an active volcano; an eruption in 1939 buried the colonies under mountains of lava. These albatrosses were assumed extinct in 1949 when none returned to Torishima.

Now protected, recovery of this long-lived, slow-breeding species has been gradual. An estimated 2,400 individual birds—including about 470 breeding pairs—currently inhabit the North Pacific expanse. Short-tailed albatrosses were infrequent visitors for decades on the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but have never bred there. US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) staff and volunteers set up realistic decoys and played recorded vocalizations on Eastern Island over the past several years in an effort to establish an alternative nesting colony. This would become an insurance breeding population should Torishima’s volcano reawaken.

Midway’s refuge staff proudly announced the first recorded egg laid by a short-tailed albatross outside Japan in November 2010. The chick hatched in January and has been carefully tended by both parents. The treasured chick is monitored daily with a remote video camera.

The growing chick survived a large storm in February but fears for its survival intensified again when a tsunami, triggered by the devastating March 11 earthquake off Japan, swept over as much as 75% of low-lying Eastern Island on Midway Atoll. According to Midway’s USFWS biologist John Klavitter via Facebook, “The short-tailed albatross nest was washed over again and the chick was found unharmed about 35m away and carried back to its nest cup.”

Future recovery efforts for this species are still hampered by threats at both breeding colonies and beyond. Torishima Island is protected from most human impacts by its oceanic isolation; however, high winds, erosion and flooding put nesting sites at risk. The main menace is the island’s active volcano, which could potentially eliminate 40% of the world’s albatross population in a single eruption. Longline and jig fisheries still kill many short-tailed albatrosses at sea while plastic ingestion and pollution are currently unquantifiable threats.

I was part of the crew that “introduced” the parent birds in 2007 and can attest to the pride and hope that has inspired scores of concerned citizens to aid in the recovery of this magnificent albatross.

Additional resources:
Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
Photos and video of short-tailed albatross parents and chick
Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels

Comments (2)add
Written by tanya hill , March 19, 2011
Thanks for the informationn. These are very beautiful birds. Do you know how the Japanese islands fared in the earthquake? I can't find any info.
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Written by Terry Auman , March 19, 2011
Make you feel like you are there. Good job.
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