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National recovery plan for Albatrosses and Giant-petrels

Wildlife Scientific Advice, Natural Heritage Division
Environment Australia, October 2001

Note:This publication has been superseded by the National recovery plan for threatened albatrosses and giant petrels 2011—2016

1. Introduction

1.1 Background

In December 1997 a re-evaluation of the conservation status of albatrosses was announced, prompted by several nominations and recent taxonomic research that increased the number of albatross species in the world from 14 to 24 (Nunn et al. 1996; Robertson and Nunn 1998). This re-evaluation established that albatrosses have the highest proportion of threatened species in any polyspecific bird family (Croxall and Gales 1998). Thus, albatrosses are the most threatened and vulnerable group of all seabirds, and their protection is an urgent priority.

Twenty-two albatross species occur within the Southern Hemisphere (Table 1.1), nineteen of which have been confirmed to occur within the Australian Fishing Zone (AFZ). Another two species (Amsterdam Albatrosses and Pacific Albatrosses) have not been positively identified within the AFZ, however, the extent of their known distributions suggests that it is possible, or even likely, that some vagrants could enter Australian waters. Thus, these species are considered to 'potentially occur' within the AFZ. The remaining three species (Waved, Short-tailed and Black-footed Albatrosses) do not occur within the AFZ.

Four albatross species are listed as nationally endangered and a further thirteen are listed as nationally vulnerable species.

Five albatross species breed on islands within Australian waters, and one of these, the Shy Albatross, is an endemic breeding species to Australia. That is, this species only breeds in Australian waters.

There are two giant-petrel species in the world, both of which forage and breed within the AFZ. Northern Giant-Petrels are currently regarded as 'near threatened' according to IUCN criteria, while Southern Giant-Petrels are listed as vulnerable (Birdlife International, in press). There is cause for concern for both species, as populations appear to be in decline.

This Recovery Plan identifies the actions necessary to ensure the recovery of all albatross and giant-petrel species occurring (or potentially occurring) within areas under Australian jurisdiction.

In all, 23 species are incorporated into the Recovery Plan (21 albatross species and both giant-petrel species). The Plan classifies these species into two categories:

  1. 'Breeding Species': species that breed on islands in areas under Australian jurisdiction; and
  2. 'Foraging Species': species that forage (or potentially forage) but do not breed within areas under Australian jurisdiction.
Table 1.1: Conservation status of albatrosses and giant-petrels
Species Forages within the Southern Hemisphere Forages within areas under Australian jurisdiction Breeds within areas under Australian jurisdiction Australian Endemic Breeder Listing on EPBC Act (1999) International Conservation Status (criteria)*
Wandering Albatross 4 4 4   Vulnerable Vulnerable (A1b,d; A2b,d)
Black-browed Albatross 4 4 4     Lower risk - near threatened (A2d)
Shy Albatross 4 4 4 4 Vulnerable Lower risk - near threatened (D2)
Grey-headed Albatross 4 4 4   Vulnerable Vulnerable (A1b,d; A2b,d)
Light-mantled Albatross 4 4 4   Data deficient Lower risk - near threatened (A1d; A2d)
Northern Giant-Petrel 4 4 4     Lower risk - near threatened (A2c,d,e)
Southern Giant-Petrel 4 4 4     Vulnerable (A1a,b,d,e; A2b,d,e)
Tristan Albatross 4 4     Endangered Endangered (B1 + 2e)
Antipodean Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (D2)
Gibson's Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (D2)
Northern Royal Albatross 4 4     Endangered Endangered (A2c; B1 + B2c,e)
Southern Royal Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (D2)
Amsterdam Albatross 4 ?     Endangered Critically endangered (D1)
Laysan Albatross 4 4       Lower risk - least concern
Campbell Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (A1a,d; D2)
Buller's Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (D2)
Pacific Albatross 4 ?     Vulnerable Vulnerable (D2)
White-capped Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (D2)
Salvin's Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (D2)
Chatham Albatross 4 4     Endangered Critically endangered (B1 + 2c)
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross 4 4       Lower risk - near threatened (A1d; A2d)
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (A1b)
Sooty Albatross 4 4     Vulnerable Vulnerable (A1b)
Waved Albatross 4         Vulnerable (D2)
Short-tailed Albatross           Vulnerable (D1, D2)
Black-footed Albatross           Vulnerable (A2d)

? Denotes a species that is suspected to occur within the AFZ although it has not yet been positively identified within Australian waters.

* International conservation status according to Birdlife International (in press: for IUCN criteria definitions see Appendix 1).

1.1.1 Existing conservation measures

All albatross species occurring within areas under Australian jurisdiction and both giant-petrels are listed in the appendices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Seventeen albatross species occurring within areas under Australian jurisdiction are protected under the EPBC Act(Table 1.1). Species breeding within Australia are also afforded protection under individual State and Territory legislation (Table 1.2).

All breeding islands under Australian jurisdiction (Macquarie Island, Albatross Island, the Mewstone, Pedra Branca, Heard and McDonald Islands, and islands within the Australian Antarctic Territory) are protected according to their status as Nature Reserves, National Parks or World Heritage Areas (see Section 4.1). The status of Albatrosses and Giant-Petrels breeding on Macquarie Island and Albatross Island (Tasmania) are monitored annually as part of long term conservation projects (see Section 5.12).

The principal threat to albatrosses and giant-petrels within the AFZ is longline fishing (Gales 1998). This practice was listed as a Key Threatening Process on Schedule 3 of the ESP Acton 24 July 1995. The ESP Act and the EPBC Act (which replaced the ESP Act as of 16 July 2000) require the preparation and implementation of a Threat Abatement Plan to combat listed Key Threatening Processes. A Threat Abatement Plan for the Incidental Catch (or By-Catch) of Seabirds During Oceanic Longline Fishing Operations (herein referred to as the Longline Fishing Threat Abatement Plan) came into force in August 1998. The Longline Fishing Threat Abatement Planprescribesnationally coordinated action to alleviate the impact of longline fishing activities on seabirds in Australian waters. The Threat Abatement Plan also fulfils Australia's obligation to the International Plan of Action for Reducing Catch of Seabirds in Longline Fisheries implemented by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations Committee of Fisheries (see Section 5.1).

This Recovery Plan acknowledges the central role of the Longline Fishing Threat Abatement Plan in eliminating the principal threat to albatrosses and giant-petrels while foraging within the AFZ. Accordingly, this Recovery Plan identifies all other processes that are affecting albatrosses and giant-petrels, and prescribes the necessary management and research actions required to ensure their recovery.

Table 1.2: Conservation status of albatrosses and giant-petrels breeding in Australia
  Wandering Albatross Black-browed Albatross Shy Albatross Grey-headed Albatross Light-mantled Albatross Southern Giant-Petrel Northern Giant-Petrel
Aust Vulnerable Protected Vulnerable Vulnerable Protected Protected Protected
Tas Endangered Vulnerable Vulnerable Vulnerable Vulnerable Nominated Nominated
Vic Protected Protected Protected Protected Threatened Nominated Nominated
NSW Endangered Vulnerable Vulnerable Protected Protected Protected Protected
Qld Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected
SA Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected
WA Vulnerable Protected Vulnerable Vulnerable Protected Protected Protected
NT Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected Protected
Inter-national* Vulnerable Near Threatened Near Threatened Vulnerable Near Threatened Vulnerable Near Threatened

* Status assessed by Birdlife International (in press)

1.1.2 Description of species

Albatrosses and giant-petrels are large seabirds belonging to the Order Procellariiformes. The 24 recognised albatross species comprise the Family Diomedeidae, whereas giant-petrels are members of the Family Procellariidae (del Hoyo et al.1992).

Albatrosses are the world's largest flying birds, weighing between 2-12kg. The female is often slightly smaller than the male. They are characterised by their enormous wingspan of 2-3.5m depending upon the species. Their consummate capacity for gliding flight enables them to traverse the vast southern oceans in search of food.

The adult plumage of most albatross and giant-petrel species tends to be a mixture of whites, greys, blacks and/or browns. Immatures of most species usually differ from adults in plumage characteristics. Some species, such as Wandering Albatrosses, undergo a long series of intermediate plumages before attaining adult plumage. Consequently, albatrosses are sometimes particularly difficult to distinguish at sea.

1.1.3 Distribution and habitat

Albatrosses and giant-petrels occur widely across the world's oceans. The recent taxonomic separation of many albatross species (Nunn et al. 1996; Robertson and Nunn 1998) and the morphological similarities amongst species (particularly juvenile birds) means that precise knowledge of the at-sea distribution of most species is lacking. Satellite transmitters have been used on some species, considerably adding to our knowledge of their at-sea distributions.

Twenty-two species of albatross and both giant-petrel species occur in the Southern Hemisphere. Eighteen of these species are known to occur in Australian waters, and two of the other three species potentially occur in Australian waters. Many species, such as Grey-headed Albatrosses, are extremely dispersive, spending most of their time over the pelagic waters of the High Seas. In contrast, others, like adult Shy Albatrosses, tend to remain sedentary, regularly foraging over coastal waters throughout their adult lives.

The at-sea distributions of each species are provided in Sections 2 and 3.

Albatrosses and giant-petrels are among the most oceanic of all seabirds, and seldom come to land unless they are breeding. Even then, many species regularly undertake foraging journeys covering several thousand kilometres of ocean (Jouventin and Weimerskirch 1990; Weimerskirch and Robertson 1994; Walker et al. 1995).

Most species typically breed on remote islands in the middle of vast oceans. Several islands within the AFZ contain breeding populations of albatrosses and/or giant-petrels: specifically, Macquarie Island, Bishop and Clerk Islets, Heard Island, the McDonald Islands, Albatross Island, Pedra Branca, and the Mewstone, as well as Giganteus Island, Hawker Island and the Frazier Islands within the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) (see Map 1; Appendix 2). These islands are critical to the survival of the Australian 'breeding species' of albatrosses and giant-petrels.

A detailed description of the critical habitats is provided in Section 4.

1.1.4 Life history / ecology

Breeding biology

Albatrosses and giant-petrels breed either solitarily, in small colonies or in large, and sometimes dense, colonies. Most species appear to develop sustained, monogamous pair bonds that typically last for life, or until the death of one individual. While some species breed annually, others breed only every second or third year.

Parental duties (for example, nest building, incubation and provisioning and care of the young) are shared by both sexes. The large nest, typically a sturdy column of packed earth and vegetation, is built on the ground. The nest is usually constructed on a terrace or on a broad, ledge or slope over-looking the sea. Pairs often reuse the same nest for several years. Albatrosses and giant-petrels invariably lay only one egg, which is not replaced if lost. Eggs are usually incubated for about 60-80 days. In most species, the parents brood the hatchling in shifts for the first few weeks of its life. Afterwards, the adult birds only return to the colony to feed the chick until it fledges at 110-304 days old (depending on the species).

Fledglings usually disperse independently. Juveniles typically roam the seas for several years before returning to their natal colony as sexually mature adults. Most individuals achieve sexual maturity at 5-12 years of age, depending upon the species. They may take several years to select a mate, form a pair bond, and select a nest site. They can be extremely long-lived birds. A banded individual has survived for at least 61 years in the wild (Robertson 1998).

Despite considerable work in this field, details of the breeding biology of many species are still lacking. This is especially true for many of the newly recognised species.

A detailed description of the breeding biology of each species is given in Sections 2 and 3.

Foraging ecology

Albatrosses and giant-petrels spend most of their lives roaming the oceans in search of prey. Most species tend to forage solitary, though large feeding flocks will gather at rich or transient food sources. Indeed, flocks of several hundred birds may follow fishing vessels where they aggressively compete for discards and/or baited hooks (Barton 1979; Harper 1987; Ryan and Moloney 1988). Ship-following is employed to such an extent that the at-sea distribution of many species is influenced by commercial fishing activity (Ryan and Moloney 1988). When directly competing for prey items, larger species tend to out-compete smaller species (Brothers 1991; Wood 1992). Some species, such as Light-mantled Albatrosses, appear to associate with ships less often than others do (Croxall and Prince 1994).

There are relatively few direct observations of albatrosses and giant-petrels foraging under natural conditions. Most species are presumed to seize natural prey items from the surface (Harper et al. 1985; Harper 1987). However, recent studies using depth gauges have shown that at least some species are proficient divers, and can plunge several metres below the surface in pursuit of prey. The Light-mantled Albatross, for example, can actively swim underwater for several seconds allowing it to dive to a depth of at least 12m (Prince et al. 1994a). Black-browed Albatrosses have also been recorded diving underwater for up to 20 seconds (Harper 1987).

It has been suggested that many albatross and giant-petrel species predominantly forage during the night (Imber and Russ 1975; Barton 1979; Prince and Morgan 1987; see Brooke and Prince 1991). However, remote sensing devices have provided contrary evidence on the timing of at-sea ingestions by Wandering Albatrosses and Shy Albatrosses. The data indicate that diurnal foraging is the norm, at least for these species (Weimerskirch and Wilson 1992; Hedd and Gales in press). For many species, however, basic data on the timing of foraging are still absent.

Cherel and Klages (1998) reviewed all available information on the diets of albatrosses. Cephalopods, especially squid, constitute the dominant prey type, with many species depending heavily upon them. Albatrosses and giant-petrels also consume fish, and to a lesser extent, crustaceans (particularly krill). Carrion and gelatinous plankton is of minor importance. Albatrosses and giant-petrels are opportunistic foragers. The ratios of these different food types probably vary depending upon local abundances and seasonal variations in prey availability.

Most quantitative studies of the diets of albatrosses are based upon food regurgitated to chicks at the nest. Hence, the foods of albatrosses and giant-petrels are poorly known outside the chick-rearing period (Cherel and Klages 1998). Indeed, the diets of several species remain almost entirely unstudied.

Life history strategies

The 'K-selected' life history strategies of albatrosses and giant-petrels are a major factor influencing their conservation status. That is, they base their strategy for survival on low natural adult mortality (in the order of 3-4%), deferred sexual maturity, low reproductive output, relatively high breeding success and a long lifespan. Consequently, populations may be imperilled by even small increases in the rate of mortality (Croxall et al. 1990). Furthermore, the breeding season of albatrosses and giant-petrels are typically exceptionally long. During this time, the death of one parent also results in the death of the dependent offspring, further jeopardising population viability (Weimerskirch and Jouventin 1987; Croxall et al. 1990).

1.1.5 Past and present threats

Prior to human contact, the isolation of albatross and giant-petrel breeding sites allowed populations to exist essentially in the absence of terrestrial predators. However, human exploitation, particularly throughout the 19th Century, ended their long isolation. Many albatrosses and giant-petrels were killed for their meat, eggs and feathers, and some populations were exterminated when their presence was deemed to be incompatible with human activities. These early settlers also modified the breeding habitats of many populations, and introduced feral pest species that continue to threaten many populations.

In recent decades, the global expansion of longline fisheries into most of the world's oceans has posed a major threat to most albatross and giant-petrel species. Individual birds can drown once they become hooked on baits attached to longline hooks. Twenty-two of the world's 24 albatross species and both giant-petrel species have been reported killed on longline vessels. While the capture rate of albatrosses may average 0.41 birds per 1,000 hooks deployed (eg. Brothers 1991), the number of hooks set per annum is extremely high. Between 50 and 100 million hooks are set each year in the Southern Ocean (Alexander et al. 1997) and about 1.1 billion hooks are set globally (AFMA unpubl. data). Consequently, thousands of albatrosses and giant-petrels are killed each year through longline fishing practices. This level of mortality does not include the associated and inevitable mortality of dependent chicks that occurs when a breeding adult is killed.

While longline fishing has been identified as the most serious threat currently facing albatrosses and giant-petrels, a number of other factors may also be causing significant mortality (Table 1.3). In addition, factors reducing the breeding success and foraging habitats of many species are contributing to declines in some breeding populations.

Table 1.3: Threats to albatrosses and giant-petrels
At-sea threats Land-based threats
  • Incidental catch in longline fisheries
  • Incidental catch in trawl fisheries
  • Intentional shooting / killing
  • Incidental catch on trolling vessels
  • Dependence upon discards
  • Competition with fisheries for marine resources
  • Marine pollution
  • Feral pest species
  • Human disturbance at the nest
  • Avian parasites and diseases
  • Interspecific competition at the nest

The current threats and issues relating to the conservation of albatrosses and giant-petrels are detailed in Section 5.

1.1.6 Status of populations

About 150 breeding populations of albatross exist around the globe. Many populations have not been surveyed for many years and/or they have not been surveyed systematically. Thus the current status of these populations can not be reliably assessed. The current status of only 53 populations is known, and almost half are decreasing (Gales 1998). The situation becomes more serious when population size is taken into account, as it is typically the large populations which are decreasing or of unknown status. Twenty-one of the world's 24 albatross species have populations that are decreasing or of unknown status for more than 50% of the global population. About 50 albatross populations contain less than 100 annual breeding pairs (reviewed in Gales 1998), making them extremely vulnerable to stochastic events.

The giant-petrels are in a comparable situation. Northern Giant-Petrels have populations that are decreasing or of unknown status for more than 60% of the global population. Worse still, Southern Giant-Petrels have populations that are decreasing or of unknown status for almost 98% of the global population (reviewed in Patterson et al. in press).

The population status of each species is described in detail in Sections 2 and 3.

There are eighteen breeding populations of albatrosses and giant-petrels occurring within areas under Australian jurisdiction. Nine of these colonies contain 200 or less breeding pairs. Eleven populations are currently being systematically monitored (see Table 5.3). At present, the current status of only four populations is known with confidence (Table 1.4).

Table 1.4: Most recent population estimates of Australian breeding populations of albatrosses and giant-petrels
Species Breeding locality Population status Survey date Annual breeding pairs
Wandering Albatross Macquarie Island Stable* 1998/99 15
Black-browed Albatross Macquarie Island ? 1998/99 45
Bishop and Clerk Islets ? 1993 141
Heard Island ? 1987/88 600-700
McDonald Islands ? 1981 82-89
Shy Albatrosses Albatross Island Increasing 1995 5,000
The Mewstone ? 1995 7,000
Pedra Branca ? 1995 200
Grey-headed Albatross Macquarie Island ? 1998/99 78
Light-mantled Albatross Macquarie Island ? 1994/95 1,000-1,150
Heard Island ? 1954 200-500
McDonald Islands ? ? ?
Northern Giant-Petrel Macquarie Island ? 1998/99 1,485
Southern Giant-Petrel Macquarie Island Decreasing 1998/99 2,293
Heard Island ? 1988 3,154
McDonald Island ? 1979 1,400
- Giganteus Island
Decreasing? 1993 2
- Hawker Island Decreasing? 1989 18
- Frazier Islands Increasing # 1990 174

? Population status is unknown due to a lack of recent or consistent population censuses

* Population is currently stable at low levels after previous population declines

# Population is possibly increasing at low levels after previous population declines

Data from sources cited in Table 5.3

1.1.7 Overall objective and recovery criteria

Overall objective Recovery criteria
To minimise (or eliminate) threats due to human activity to albatrosses and giant-petrels to ensure their recovery in the wild.
  1. Incidental by-catch during longline fishing operations is consistent with the criteria specified in the Longline Fishing Threat Abatement Plan for all albatross and giant-petrel species within the AFZ; and
  2. all human induced threats to albatrosses and giant-petrels have been minimised (or eliminated); and
  3. no breeding population within areas under Australian jurisdiction declines due to human activities; and
  4. all albatross and giant-petrel breeding populations within areas under Australian jurisdiction that have declined exhibit a sustained increase in population size.

1.1.8 Specific objectives

The Specific objectives of this Recovery Plan are to:

  1. Quantify and reduce the threats to the survival of albatrosses and giant-petrels within areas under Australian jurisdiction; and
  2. Quantify and reduce the threats to the reproductive success of albatrosses and giant-petrels breeding within areas under Australian jurisdiction; and
  3. Quantify and reduce the threats to the foraging habitat of albatrosses and giant-petrels within areas under Australian jurisdiction; and
  4. Maintain existing population monitoring programs for albatrosses and giant-petrels breeding on Macquarie Island, Albatross Island, Pedra Branca, the Mewstone, and within the Australian Antarctic Territory, and develop population monitoring programs for other representative breeding populations under Australian jurisdiction; and
  5. Educate fishers and promote public awareness of the threats to albatrosses and giant-petrels; and
  6. Achieve substantial progress towards global conservation of albatrosses and giant-petrels in international conservation and fishing fora; and
  7. Assess and revise the Albatross and Giant-Petrel Recovery Plan as necessary

The Overall and Specific Objectives, Recovery Actions and Criteria, Schedule, estimated costs, and managers responsible for each action are described in detail in Section 6.

1.2 Legislative basis for this recovery plan

The Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) is the primary instrument for Commonwealth actions to protect and assist the recovery in the wild of threatened native species or ecological communities. The EPBC Act lists those native species and ecological communities that are vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, and extinct in the wild, as well as the Key Threatening Processes that impinge upon those species and communities. The EPBC Act ensures a comprehensive framework for national protective management throughout the entire range of a listed species or community.

Species that meet the EPBC Act's criteria as threatened are called 'Listed Species.' Section 179 of the EPBC Act provides definitions for the various categories of threatened species. The EPBC Act's definitions of the categories of threatened species that are of relevance to this plan are as follows:

The EPBC Act requires the preparation of Recovery Plans that set out the actions necessary to support the recovery of listed species or ecological communities to maximise their chances of long-term survival. According to the Act, a Recovery Plan must be prepared within three years of a species being included on the threatened species list. The EPBC Act also prescribes the content of a Recovery Plan (Appendix 3) and outlines approaches for a Recovery Plan to be approved or adopted. Once a Recovery Plan is adopted under the EPBC Act, one always has to be in operation for that species or ecological community.

Twenty-one of the world's 24 albatross species occur or potentially occur within Australian waters. Seventeen of these species are listed as threatened species according to the EPBC Act. Thirteen albatross species meet the criteria for listing as nationally vulnerable species, while the remaining four species meet the criteria for listing as nationally endangered species (Table 1.1).

This Recovery Plan fulfils the requirements of the EPBC Act for the 17 listed species of albatross. Furthermore, the declining status of the remaining four albatross species occurring within Australian waters and both giant-petrel species may lead to their listing in the near future. Thus, prescriptions for the recovery of these species are also included within this document.