STA Meets SHC: Albatross Conservation Follows The SHC Model
A short tailed albatross chick "meets" a decoy on Mukojima Island. Credit: Greg Balogh / USFWS
The short-tailed albatross (STA) – with its golden head and distinctive bubble-gum pink bill – has faced down extinction before and survived.
By the turn of the 20th century, millions of these majestic seabirds, arguably the handsomest of the three albatross species that inhabit the North Pacific, had been harvested for their feathers and eggs, and by the 1930s the species was believed extinct. A few breeding pairs were found in the 1950s, and now the short-tailed albatross population is estimated at 3,100 individuals (500-550 breeding pairs) worldwide.
But recovery is far from assured.
Part of the problem is that the birds, which forage extensively along Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain, nest in only two places: the Japanese island Torishima, which hosts approximately 85 percent of the world’s breeding population, and the Senkaku Island group.
Japan, China and Taiwan all claim title to the Senkaku Islands, making that area somewhat unstable. And Torishima is an active volcano, with the main breeding site perched on a steep eroding slope.
One catastrophic natural event, such as a volcano, flood or hurricane, or political turmoil could severely hurt the species’ chances.
Using Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and partners, both national and international, are working to ensure its recovery.
The first step in SHC is to establish targets or biological outcomes to work toward.
The Short-tailed Albatross Recovery Plan, completed in 2008, set a goal of reducing threats and increasing population numbers to the point that listing under the Endangered Species Act is no longer necessary. One measurable part of this goal is the establishment of at least one additional breeding colony in a safe and protected location. An established colony consists of at least 50 breeding pairs and, at a minimum, a three-year running average growth rate of at least 6 percent for seven years or more.
The Short-tailed Albatross Recovery Team had to determine how to reach those outcomes. One way was by “jump-starting” new colony formation by translocating chicks to a safe colony site. But this had never been done before with the short-tailed albatross, so key uncertainties needed to be addressed before full-scale implementation could occur.
Pilot studies in 2006 and 2007 showed some success in translocating and rearing the two more abundant albatross species native to the North Pacific, Laysan and black-footed. The studies also allowed the team to refine its techniques.
So in February 2008, the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology (YIO) transported 10 short-tailed albatross chicks to Mukojima, a historical short tailed albatross nesting island about 350 km south of Torishima. Here, an artificial colony had been set up, with realistic decoys, artificial eggs, and a solar-powered sound system playing vocalizations recorded at the Torishima breeding colony. All 10 of these chicks fledged in May 2008.
This effort was so successful that YIO has moved and reared 15 chicks each year since, and all have fledged.
The success of this effort is measured by how many chicks are successfully fledged and how the chicks behave post fledging. All 55 chicks translocated to Mukojima since 2008 were successfully reared to fledging. Satellite telemetry data from a sample of fledglings tracked each year have shown comparable movements of hand-reared versus parent-reared fledglings from Torishima. In 2011, six subadults that had been hand-reared in 2008 and one from 2009 were observed on Mukojima. Although these birds are still too young to breed, some were observed practicing courtship dancing, confirming that at least some hand-reared chicks have survived, recognize their own species, and may consider Mukojima a breeding site.
After the fifth and last translocation in 2012, both Torishima and Mukojima will be monitored annually to determine short tailed albatross population status and inform planning for future actions.
Refinement is a key part of SHC. The Service must go where the science leads.
In the case of the short-tailed albatross, food-preparation and chick-handling procedures were revised, significantly reducing the potential for spread of disease among translocated chicks.
The future looks brighter for the short-tailed albatross, and the STA has SHC to thank.