Albatrosses: despite the remoteness of their breeding sites and the formidable isolation of an oceanic lifestyle, their survival in the several centuries since we discovered them has been at increasing risk from the activities of mankind. Only now, at what could be the last opportunity for many albatross populations, are concerted efforts under way to redress the situation.
Three main interlinked philosophical and practical drivers have conspired to bring about the demise of albatrosses. First is the pervasive view in many (but not all) societies and cultures that wildlife on this planet exists only to serve human need and convenience. Thus, for breeding sites accessible to humans, this led to direct exploitation of adults, chicks, and eggs by the thousands for human consumption or adornment. At sea, such attitudes still contribute to the perception that killing albatrosses (and many other marine creatures) as by-products of fishing activity is acceptable and inconsequential. Another disastrous by-product of humankind's early interactions with albatross breeding sites was the introduction of alien invasive species. Although albatrosses are, in general, less vulnerable to such interactions than smaller birds and animals, they have suffered greatly from direct depredation by cats, rodents, pigs, etc., and indirectly from changes to breeding habitat wrought by other species such as goats and rabbits.
Second, human exploitation of resources, especially marine ones, being driven by maximizing immediate profit or return, has led to rapid and irreversible overfishing. This is part of the "tragedy of the commons," whereby foregoing today's short-term profit for tomorrow's long-term sustainable harvesting is seldom favored in competitive societies where supply is, or is perceived to be, outstripped by demand. This is particularly the case in systems where either exploitation is unregulated or, if nominally regulated, such rules are unenforced or unenforceable. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the high seas. For generations now, this has been the last frontier, one where piracy flourishes, where any regulated practitioners have to compete (and therefore often collaborate) with exploiters unfettered by regulation, where ignoring and evading any rules is condoned by many governments and by the self-appointed management authorities alike, and where the rule (or rather the enforcement) of international law is so weak as to be largely ineffectual.
The third driver is the pressures on natural resources generated by the exponential growth of human population. This is compounded by the increasing disparity between the affluent and the poor and the demand for food resources to sustain the latter in the face of the increasingly powerful monopolies that, at sea, effectively control all but artisanal fishing practices. The imperative of poverty alleviation is widely championed but seldom linked to the need for population regulation, without which increasing poverty and resource demand are inevitable consequences.
Taken together, these attitudes, practices, and priorities combine to ensure the continuing overexploitation of the marine resources of our oceans, with little or no concern for the fate of the species and systems that naturally depend on these. In addition, one aspect that consistently compounds the plight of species such as albatrosses is the lack of appreciation of just how vulnerable many species of marine top predators actually are. Most albatross species breed on just one or a few islands, have global populations on the order of ten thousand pairs or fewer, and have some of the lowest reproductive rates among birds (they start breeding at ten years of age and often do not breed every year thereafter; they are successful on only about one-half of breeding occasions). Thus they are extremely sensitive to additional sources of mortality at any stage of their life cycle but especially when adult.
This extraordinary book provides detailed insights into all aspects of the threats confronting albatrosses, both historically, currently, and in prospect. In particular, however, it focuses on the current struggle to address the impact of bycatch in commercial fisheries, especially those for tuna and on the high seas. Thus, in the 1980s, just at a time when efforts were being made to preserve and protect the island habitats where most albatrosses breed, a devastating new threat emerged in the ocean habitats where they feed. Perhaps inevitably, in the search for new target species and more effective ways of fishing, but accelerated by the ban on driftnet fishing on the high seas, longline fishing began to cast a shadow over the life of albatrosses. Longline fishing rapidly developed into a preeminent fishing technique, whether targeting high-value fish in surface waters or fishing near the ocean floor at ever-increasing depths and in hitherto pristine environments, especially at seamounts. If this was rapidly a disaster for the survival of many of the target fish species, it was little less so for the marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds—and the nontarget fish species (especially sharks)—caught incidentally. Once the magnitude of the problem became appreciated (which took a decade or more, not least because of the low absolute rates of bycatch—until these were scaled up to take account of the huge fishing effort involved), an increasingly complex operation was started, designed to mitigate, if not eliminate, the bycatch of nontarget species, including and especially albatrosses.
As this book describes, the theaters of engagement were diverse and the actors multiple at every level from grassroots interaction with fishers to high-level negotiation between governments and in United Nations agencies. Despite the overwhelming economic logic that catching fewer birds meant catching more fish (or, at the very least, fishing more efficiently), engagement with those responsible for managing fisheries has been exceptionally challenging. This was particularly so with those nominally responsible for managing the relevant fisheries on the high seas, the tuna Regional Fisheries Management Organisations (RFMOs).
It was rapidly apparent that most high seas RFMOs had limited ability even to manage the target fish species for which they were established to take responsibility; commitment of time and effort to bycatch issues was seen as entirely irrelevant. Not only were most RFMOs essentially monopolistic cartels of small numbers of fishing nations with little interest beyond maximizing profit, but most were also dominated by the powerhouses of the Asian fleets (led by Japan) and the European Community (dominated by Spain). Throughout the 1990s, these two constituencies maintained an effective stranglehold over most aspects of fishing policy and practice within their domains.
It has taken a decade of work for almost all the stakeholders—from benign governments to campaigning nongovernmental organizations—slowly to bring RFMOs to start to implement more precautionary management of target fish stocks and to begin to address their international responsibilities in terms of environmentally responsible fishing, notably with respect to bycatch.
This book provides an exceptional case history of this process. At the center of the struggle is the fate of many of the iconic animals of the ocean. The species and systems of the great waters of the world belong to all of us. At present, most stakeholders have been disenfranchised by the activities of a small group of players, many of whom are in thrall to the "beneficial" owners of the overcapitalized, subsidized fleets that plow increasingly uneconomic paths across the global ocean. More transparent and democratic processes are, gradually, being developed; whether these will be enacted in time to redress the situation remains to be seen. However, for many populations of target fish species and nontarget marine mammals, turtles, and seabirds alike, it is cold comfort that wider-scale extinctions may only be averted by the economic collapse of the fisheries involved. Not only will this be the saddest of indictments of humankind's inability to manage its affairs in sustainable ways, but it will most likely simply displace the root problem elsewhere, overwhelming the biodiversity of other fragile ecosystems. The chase for profit before sustainability, for exploitation of food resources without account of the damage to the environments that sustain them and the ecosystem services they provide (supporting much of the planet), places us at a critical juncture. In reality, unless new governance for the oceans can be achieved soon, based on principles of equitability and sustainability and with better appreciation that the world's resources are unlikely much longer to sustain our expanding population, the prospects will be bleak indeed.
This book, however, testifies to the endeavors of all those who wish to try to change the systems that we have created and inherited before it is too late. Whether there is the political will to make these changes is the key question; we have the tools and the commitment to complete the job if the systems and rules of engagement can be changed sufficiently. If so, we shall all be able to continue to enjoy the spectacle of albatrosses sailing over the global ocean; their longer-term fate, however, is inextricably bound up with our own.