Australian scientists lead international program to save albatross

28 December 2001

A major field program to collect vital data about the lives of endangered seabirds in the world’s most inaccessible albatross colonies has just ended for four Australian biologists.

The collaborative five-week expedition involved Australian and Chilean researchers working together in stormy Antarctic waters off the southern coast of Chile.

Fierce subantarctic winds and a lack of shelter forced them to swim ashore and set up base in a cave set in an almost-vertical cliff face on the remote rock stack of Ildefonso.

The expedition, led by Australian Antarctic Division senior scientist Dr Graham Robertson, sought information on the albatross species on the island as part of an international effort to tackle a global decline in numbers of several seabird species.

Albatrosses circumnavigate the globe at subantarctic latitudes, feeding wherever they can, making them vulnerable to becoming hooked and drowned during longline fishing operations. As they forage in waters protected by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, it’s important that their diet and foraging patterns be understood.

Concern about dwindling numbers albatrosses world-wide has prompted the recent ratification by Australia of the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. This agreement recognises the international nature of the birds’ distribution and the need for international management.

The Australian-Chilean study aimed to collect information about the black-browed and grey-headed albatrosses from their three known South American breeding sites to see whether the populations are similar enough to allow that of the most accessible site to be used as a model for the others.

The Chilean breeding islands are surrounded by seas that contain one of the most productive fisheries in the world, attracting unregistered and uncontrolled fishing activity from many nations including Chile and Argentina.

“We couldn’t miss the opportunity to work with the Chileans on the global problem of albatross mortality – the birds don’t recognise any man-made borders.” Dr Robertson said.

Parties to the collaborative effort were Drs Graham Robertson, Barbara Wienecke and Roger Kirkwood from the Australian Antarctic Division; Dr Jose Valencia of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (Instituto Antarctico Chileno) and Professor Carlos Moreno of the University of Southern Chile (Universidad Austral de Chile).

Dr Robertson said “When we climbed the cliff face at Ildefonso, we had no idea the cave was there – it was just one of those lucky things.”

Other sites on the remote Chilean Island of Ildefonso, which sits in Drake Passage between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula, were exposed to the constant 60–70 knot winds and too dangerous to work from.

“The birds nesting there are very stoic – sometimes they are blown off their nests,” Dr Robertson said.