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Coming Up Short
Join a team of scientists on a remote Pacific island as they go about the business of helping the short-tailed albatross.

A short-tailed albatross on the wing.
Noboru Nakamura

Our preparations to study the largest colony of endangered short-tailed albatross, located on Japan’s Torishima Island, started months earlier. Gaining permission to even set foot on Torishima (a Japanese Natural Monument) is no small task. But the real work begins in early February, when we step from a flimsy rubber raft onto a tiny flat rock that constitutes the only safe landing spot on the entire island. There once was a nice harbor here, but the island’s volcano, looming above us, cloaked it in a 90-foot-thick blanket of lava during its 1939 eruption. The former anchorage is now just another sheer rock face that discourages humans from trespassing.

Researchers hiking uphill.
Paul Sievert

We fling boxes, jugs, and bags from raft to little flat rock to huge basaltic boulders, fire brigade-style. Food, clothing, water, fuel—everything we need to survive for weeks must be hauled up an imposing and dishearteningly tall rock face (photo above). In some places, we use dilapidated stairs that have barely survived a series of volcanic eruptions and typhoons. In other places, we hop from boulder to boulder— recently fallen chunks of the very rock face we are climbing. It takes our crew of 10 the better part of a day to move our mountain of gear 300 meters uphill—all for the purpose of attaching to a few albatross a handful of satellite transmitters that weigh no more than a candy bar.

Home to 85 percent of the world’s population of short-tailed albatross, the Tsumbame-zaki colony is located on a steep slope made up of volcanic ash that easily erodes when outflow from the volcanic caldera above washes across it.
Greg Balogh

We traverse the island daily, passing albatross bones left behind by feather hunters who came within a feather shaft of driving the species to extinction 80 years ago. Our trek takes us around the island’s volcano and down a steep rock face to Tsubame-zaki, the short-tailed albatross colony that is home to 85 percent of the world’s remnant population (photo above).

Rob Suryan (left) and Paul Sievert (right) attach a transmitter to a short-tailed albatross.
Kiyoaki Ozaki

We carefully select and capture eight breeding adults and tape the satellite transmitters to their backs (photos above and below). In previous years, we’ve tagged non-breeding birds that happened to visit Torishima Island, and we’ve captured and tagged a handful of shorties at sea in Alaska. This is the first time we have tagged breeding shorties.

Paul Sievert, with a tagged breeding shorty.
Paul Sievert

The tags (see photo below) send a simple radio data stream to satellites orbiting between the poles. Using well-synced clocks, these satellites calculate the amount of time it takes a signal to travel from the transmitter to orbiting receivers. After a bout of messy mathematics, the result is a coordinate marking the bird’s location.

A satellite transmitter, weighing no more than a candy bar.
Fumio Sato

When we tag shorties, we expect to get a month or two of data from each bird before the transmitter falls from their backs into the briny depths. This trip, we’ll get lucky with some longer deployments. (From one bird in particular, we eventually collect more than six months of data. Given that the species molts in late summer, this bird should have shed the transmitter by midway through the fifth month, at the latest.)

The very night after tagging our first breeding birds, we fight to keep rats out of our sleeping bags. My colleague, Dr. Paul Sievert, contracts a case of typhus from a flea bite (his New England doctor had a heck of a time diagnosing that one). Oblivious to our nocturnal rodent adventures, the tagged albatross conduct business as usual, headed to waters off the eastern coast of Honshu (Japan’s main island) to retrieve yet another load of seafood for their patiently waiting, pot-bellied youngsters (photo below).

An adult short-tailed albatross and its chick.
Hiroshi Hasegawa

In the morning, as we dine on fish soup and something akin to steamed spinach, my colleague Fumio Sato makes maps from satellite data that are only hours old. They show us exactly where the adult albatross went to get their chick’s most recent nutrient-rich, but vile smelling meal of fish and squid.

Satellite locations marking the path of tagged breeding shorties on foraging flights from Torishima to points along Honshu and back. In this region, the warm Kuroshio current and the cold Oyashio current collide and cause productive areas of upwelling.
Courtesy of Rob Suryan, Oregon State University

In addition to our excellent data on foraging locations during brood rearing (map above), we eventually collect superb tracking data showing when these adults left the chicks to fend for themselves and move toward Alaska, where they forage until late September (movie below). (Some birds migrate directly north, others wander. Some seem to saunter along the scenic route in no particular hurry. Maybe they’re awaiting favorable winds. Or maybe they find fishing boats spewing tasty morsels overboard.)  

Click on image below to play movie

Animated flight paths of four short-tailed albatross as they forage at sea off the coast of Japan (when the movie is playing, each color represents a different adult). The paths are derived from satellite transmitters taped to the birds' back feathers. Note that in mid- to late-May, the adults stop feeding their young (which will fledge in a couple weeks) and head north toward Alaska.

Movie by Rob Suryan, Oregon State University

From our combined efforts during the past 10 years, we’ve learned that the birds seem to prefer areas of ocean that are less than 1,000 meters where deep, fertile waters well up into shallower areas (map below). These upwellings carry food to the ocean surface, presumably providing a food supply suffi-
cient to support huge numbers of albatross and other non-diving seabirds. Along the Bering Sea shelf break is a food base that may have once fed millions of shorties and is now shared by the remaining 2,600.  

Short-tailed albatross distribution against an ocean backdrop. Shorties spend most of their foraging time in waters less than 1000 meters of depth and not too far from land.
Courtesy of Rob Suryan, Oregon State University

Our satellite data from other Northern Hemisphere alba-
trosses show that the shorties’ potential competitors—Laysan and black-footed albatross—have not encroached on this subarctic food resource (map below). Assuming there are no large-scale oceanic changes (admittedly, a dangerous assumption), we expect that this resource will feed many thousands of additional short-tailed albatross. In other words, food is probably not a limiting factor for this species.

Late summer and fall locations of three tagged species of albatross. Black-footed albatross (in red) occupied the coastal areas along the Gulf of Alaska and further eastern Aleutian Islands. Laysan albatross (in yellow) used deeper waters, generally west of most of black-footed albatross. Short-tailed albatross (in green) were the only ones to make extensive use of the Bering Sea.
Courtesy of Karen Fischer, Oregon State University

Notably, our data have shown a tendency of short-tailed albatross to congregate in a small portion of the Bering Sea each September (photo below)—a behavior first reported by fishermen in the area. The movement of birds to the region has now been confirmed through satellite telemetry, but we don’t yet know why they’re going there.

Short-tailed albatross congregating in the Bering Sea.
Josh Hawthorne

The short-tailed albatross population is growing about as fast as it can—about 6 to 8 percent per year. That’s a rapid rate, considering how the birds lay just one egg per year, don’t try to breed every year, and don’t even begin to attempt breeding until they are five to seven years old. 

Despite their growing population, many people are worried about threats to the population—namely, those posed by commercial fisheries. The incidental catch of birds on commercial fishing gear is a huge problem in the Southern Hemisphere. There, as in the United States, birds often attack baited hooks streaming out behind longline vessels. If a bird gets hooked or tangled, it’s dragged to the bottom, and—just like that—there’s one fewer albatross.

A tagged shorty flying.
Noboru Nakamura

Until recently, longliners in Alaska—setting tens of millions of baited hooks each year—were responsible for killing tens of thousands of birds annually with their gear. We know of at least five short-tailed albatross that have met their demise at the point of a longline hook. The good news is that Alaskan longliners have taken strides to avoid ensnaring birds. They now set out streamer lines behind their boats, which act like moving curtains that keep the birds away from baited hooks until they sink out of sight. As a result, seabird bycatch has dropped markedly. Controlled field tests show that streamer lines, when used properly, reduce seabird bycatch by 88-100%. No short-tailed albatross have been documented as being taken in this fishery since streamer lines came into use in 1999, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began giving them away to fishermen for free.  

While the conservation success story in Alaska is heartening, we’re uncertain how seabirds like shorties are faring in the Japanese fisheries. The fisheries agency there seems reluc-
tant to share their data. We know a little more about the situation in Russia: its longline fleet is about half as large as the U.S. fleet, and our telemetry data tells us that short-tailed albatross spend far less time in Russian than Alaskan waters. All else equal, Russian longliners pose a lesser threat than U.S. ones. To ensure that Russian fisheries don’t evolve into a danger, however, the World Wildlife Fund and other conser-
vation groups are spreading the gospel of streamer lines to Russian longline fishermen, and it seems that the fishermen are listening. Indeed, the reasoning makes sense: Less bait stolen from hooks by birds means more fish in the hold and more money for their catch.

A short-tailed albatross soars above a boat at sea.
Noboru Nakamura

Back on Torishima Island in early June, all the adults are gone. The last feeding of chicks took place in late May. The slate gray, once-rotund fuzzballs are transforming into one of the world’s most graceful gliders. Having stored fat to further develop their feathers and flight muscles, they no longer need provisions from either parent.

A feather hunter.

Yamashina Institute Photo Archives

With each gust of wind, they stretch their wings and flap. As the wind grow strongers, one by one they float off on a fresh breeze and slowly descend to the ocean far below—their home for the next five years. With a little luck and a lot of squid, they will return to this same spot to breed and begin the cycle over again—a cycle that was only two dozen club swings by a feather hunter away from disappearing forever (photo above). 


To see more track lines for these albatross, and for albatross captured at sea in Alaska, click here and select the links at the bottom of the page.

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Read related story: "Raising Shorties."

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