The historic, pre-exploitation population size of short-tailed albatross is unknown, but they were probably numbered over one million and were the most numerous albatross species in the North Pacific. They nested on up to 14 sites in the western Pacific Ocean near Japan, Taiwan, and China. Remains of adult short-tailed albatross are found in many Aleutian Island and native American archaeological sites, suggesting that they were a common food source for native coastal communities.
The population decreased dramatically with the initiation of feather harvesting. While feather harvesting had probably occurred casually for some time, commercial feather harvesting took place from 1887 – 1933. The feathers were exported for use in pillows, quilts, writing quills and millinery. Albatross bodies were rendered into oil or used as fertilizer.
The commercial operation was large, with up to 300 people involved in the trade living on Torishima, one of the main breeding islands, at times. Some records suggest that each worker could harvest between 100 to 200 albatrosses a day. A reconstruction of the weight of exported feathers found that at least 5 million albatrosses had been harvested by 1902, when a volcanic eruption temporarily halted the feather harvest on Torishima. Eruptions killed all 125 employees of the commercial feather operation.
Concern grew among Japanese conservationists about the decline in short-tailed albatross population. Less than a hundred years after feather harvesting began, only 2,000 short-tailed albatrosses were found nesting on Torishima in 1930 when Japan declared the island a sanctuary. Oliver Austin, Jr. conducted a survey of all known breeding sites in 1949, but found no short-tailed albatrosses. He declared the species extinct, stating, “It seems only too likely that Steller’s albatross has become one of the more recent victims of man’s thoughtlessness and greed”.
They were rediscovered, breeding on Torishima by Japanese weather observers in 1950. Another group was found breeding on an island in the Senkaku islands, in an area disputed by Japan, China and Taiwan. The population has grown steadily since the mid-1950’s and has reached over 500 breeding pairs. But the short-tailed albatross population is still vulnerable because the population is < 1% of historical levels, so few of the historical colony sites are occupied, and those occupied are either volcanically or politically unstable areas.
SShort-tailed Albatrosses nesting in the Atlantic? Short-tailed albatross did nest in the Atlantic, but a very long time ago. Fossil records indicate that a short-tailed albatross colony in Bermuda was extirpated due to sea level rise during the Pleistocene (marine isotope stage 11, 420–362 thousand years ago). Recolonization of the Atlantic by short-tailed albatrosses has likely not occurred after the Isthmus of Panama was no longer covered by ocean and the Northwest Passage above North America was ice covered year-round. Ice retreat in the Northwest Passage may be the first corridor for species like the short-tailed albatross to transit between ocean basins.