Refuge Notebook 06/03/2011


Albatrosses of the Gulf of Alaska
by Toby Burke

I recently returned from a two week assignment in the Gulf of Alaska where I surveyed the area’s abundant seabirds during late April and early May - during spring migration and the Gulf’s transition from winter to spring. Inshore, nearshore, and offshore marine habitats were all surveyed aboard the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s research vessel M/V Tiglax. 

Most local Kenai Peninsula residents who recreate in the area’s marine waters do so in inshore waters such as Cook Inlet, Kachemak and Resurrection Bays, and Prince William Sound. In these protected shallow waters, landward influences are relatively great compared with seaward influences. Occasionally, the more adventurous boater strays into nearshore waters beyond the protection of embayments but still well within the confines of the relatively shallow continental waters. These waters are subject to nearly equal landward and seaward influences. Further still, many miles from the mainland beyond the continental shelf, are offshore waters. Here, where deepwater commercial fishing vessels and large oceangoing transports operate, landward influences are small and seaward influences great. This is the classic oceanic environment. Marine species utilizing this habitat are known as open ocean or pelagic species. 

This vast and seemingly desolate expanse of ocean habitat is the domain of the albatross. This very large pelagic seabird frequents not only warm tropical oceans, but also the cold waters of the north Pacific and even the Bering Sea. Kenai Peninsula residents are often amazed when I relay to them that albatrosses are common in the offshore waters of the Gulf of Alaska. This spring, while in the Gulf 100 miles offshore, I observed a single fishing boat processing its catch with over 300 albatrosses at its stern. More impressively, I was able to observe all three species of North Pacific albatrosses in the Gulf this spring! 

These three species of albatross - Laysan, Black-footed, and Short-tailed - are most commonly encountered in offshore waters near the nutrient upwelling that occur at or near the continental shelf break. They feed on crustaceans, squid, fish, fish eggs, and fish waste from commercial fishing boats. They are infrequently encountered in nearshore waters after heavy storms and rarely if ever encountered in inshore waters. 

The entire breeding populations of these three species are confined to the North Pacific Ocean. They are long lived birds that commonly live 40 or more years. They take several years to become sexually mature, usually breeding at about eight years of age. Once young albatrosses fledge and leave their natal colonies, they do not typically return until it is time for them to breed. During the interim, they continuously wander the vast north Pacific. Consequently, most population censuses of albatross are conducted at breeding colonies and only include mature individuals as the juveniles are dispersed and difficult to census. 

The Black-footed and Laysan’s Albatrosses breed primarily in concentrated colonies on small remote islands in the Hawaiian Islands chain. There are 130,000 Black-footed and 1,200,000 Laysan breeding adults. The Short-tailed Albatross breeds only on two small islands off Japan and Taiwan. They are critically endangered with only 2,400 breeding adults. 

Surprisingly, the Short-tailed Albatross was formerly the most abundant North Pacific albatross numbering a staggering 10 million individuals. Their numbers were decimated by feather harvesters. During1885-1903, five million birds were harvested from Torishima Island alone. By 1949 they were believed to be extinct as all remaining colonies were destroyed and breeding had ceased. Fortunately, a few dozen juveniles survived the carnage while wandering at sea and eventually returned to nest at Torishima and lay eggs in 1954. That tiny protected population has slowly expanded to the point that Short-tailed Albatrosses are again being sighted in the Gulf of Alaska. 

Black-footed and Laysan Albatrosses also suffered severely from the feather trade, as well and from naval construction and operations on their breeding islands during World War II through the 1960’s, but were not brought to the brink of extinction. Today the greatest threats facing the survival of North Pacific albatrosses are long-line fisheries, ingestion of plastics, environmental contamination, and introduced predators and plants. Short-tailed Albatrosses are also at risk because Torishima, their main breeding island, is an active volcano. 

Today the Black-footed Albatross is abundant in the Gulf of Alaska. The Laysan Albatross is commonly encountered and the Short-tailed Albatross is currently a rare but increasing visitor. Accordingly, the next time you traverse the Gulf of Alaska while on an Alaska Marine Highway System ferry from Homer to Kodiak, to Dutch Harbor, or to other ports in Southeast Alaska, keep watch for albatrosses while on deck. If you’re fortunate you might even see one of the world’s rarest albatrosses. 

Toby Burke is a refuge biological technician who is intrigued by the status and distribution of Alaska and Kenai Peninsula birds and enjoys birding with his wife and family. You can find more information about the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at or