Other Problems with Humans Return to the Hawaii Study
Getting caught on the hooks of longline fishing gear is a major problem faced by albatrosses today, but this is not the first time that they have encountered difficulties with humans.  Here are some things that humans do that affect albatrosses:
Piloting boats   Fertilizing crops  Dressing with style  Military defense  Disposing of waste
How do you think these might influence albatrosses?    Try to answer that question yourself, then read the following paragraphs to see if you were right!

Piloting boats

Many of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where Laysan and black-footed albatrosses nest, are surrounded by coral reefs just below the surface of the water.  If a ship's captain is not careful, the ship can easily be destroyed by hitting the heads of coral.  When this happens, survivors of the shipwreck typically go to the nearest island and set up a camp while they wait to be rescued.  Often the only available food items are seals, turtles, and - you guessed it - seabirds!  One shipwrecked crew on Kure Atoll ate 7,000 seabirds (many were albatrosses) before they were rescued 6 months later.  Other shipwreck survivors, such as rats and dogs, also harm albatrosses.  Polynesian rats were introduced to Kure in this way and they now cause problems for albatrosses by eating their eggs, killing chicks, and even killing adults while they sit on their nests.  Rats are VERY AGGRESSIVE!  Recently, rat control programs on Kure Atoll and Midway Atoll have helped and the seabird populations are recovering. Fortunately, no rats have ever made it to Tern Island.


Disposing of Waste

Albatrosses can be harmed by different kinds of human wastes found in the ocean and on albatross nesting islands.  Plastic garbage commonly enters the ocean by being dumped over the side of boats, or by being washed down rivers and into the ocean.  Pieces of plastic are "ingested" (swallowed) by albatrosses while they are feeding at sea and then the plastic is passed to their chicks when they feed them by regurgitation.  Hundreds of black-footed and Laysan albatross chicks have been inspected for plastic ingestion, and 2/3's of the black-foots, and all Laysan chicks contained plastic in their stomachs!  The plastic can slow the growth of chicks and sometimes kill them, because ingested plastic is not digested.  Plastic items found in the stomachs of chicks include toothbrushes, children's toys, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, pipes, fishing line, and gloves.  Albatrosses either mistake these items for fish or squid, or they accidentally swallow them when they eat flying fish eggs that are often attached to floating objects.   

A Laysan albatross chick died, and look at
what was inside its digestive system. 

Photo: Paul Sievert

Currently, 88 countries have signed a treaty (called MARPOL Annex V) that prohibits at-sea disposal of plastic wastes and this might help reduce the plastic ingestion problem.  Unfortunately the plastic already in the ocean will take a long time to break down.

In addition to plastic waste, chemical pollution such as lead, PCBs, DDT, and dioxins can harm albatrosses.  Albatross chicks are very curious creatures, and chicks in nests near old buildings often pick up chips of peeling paint and swallow them.  Lead in the paint is absorbed by the chick, causing permanent damage to its nervous system.  Its wings begin to droop and it dies within several days.  This can be a serious problem near buildings on Midway and Tern Island.  PCBs, DDT, and dioxins are toxic chemicals that are now commonly found in the ocean and in food items eaten by albatrosses.  Recent studies have found that Hawaiian albatrosses contain levels of PCBs and dioxins that are known to harm fish-eating birds. 

Fertilizing crops

The droppings of seabirds are rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, and under the right conditions and over many centuries they can form a substance called guano that can be many feet thick.  The Pacific Guano and Fertilizer Company began mining guano on Laysan Island (320 miles northwest of Tern Island) in the late 1800's and shipped it to farmers to spread on their crops.  Guano mining was quite disruptive for the albatrosses on Laysan Island because they had to share their 5.8 square kilometer (1.5 square mile) island with 45 people, and herds of mules, cattle, and pigs.  But this was not the worst thing to happen to them.  In 1903, the supervisor of the guano operation introduced rabbits (huh?) to Laysan Island, and also to nearby Lisianski Island.  The rabbit population grew quickly and devoured the vegetation so that by 1923 almost all plants on these two islands were gone.  This meant that albatross chicks could not find shade from the hot sun and many died.  This event also caused the extinction of 3 species of birds that were only found on Laysan Island.  Today, all of the rabbits have been removed and the vegetation has recovered along with the many species of seabirds that nested there.


Dressing with style

At the beginning of this century it was highly fashionable to wear hats that were trimmed in bird feathers.  Unfortunately for albatrosses, the feathers often came from them!  Feather harvesting was conducted by people  who illegally landed on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands several times from 1903 to 1915.  During these stops, they killed a minimum of 1.3 million seabirds, most of which were albatrosses.  It was this big-time killing of seabirds that stimulated United States President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside these islands as a bird reservation in 1909. 

The  feather hunters greatly decreased the size of the Laysan and black-footed albatross populations, but they had an even greater effect on short-tailed albatrosses nesting on small islands south of Tokyo, Japan. Short-tailed albatrosses were the most numerous albatrosses in the north Pacific Ocean before feather hunting began.  During a 17-year period, feather hunters killed 5 million short-tailed albatrosses, and almost caused the species to go extinct.   No short-tails were seen from 1935 to 1945, and then a few began to return to nest in the late 1940's.  The short-tail population has now increased to almost 1,000 individuals, from the conservation efforts of Hiroshi Hasegawa from Japan.  We will have to wait and see whether this small population recovers to its past level.

Short-tailed albatrosses

Photo: Hiroshi Hasegawa


Military Defense

As a part of its military operation during World War II, the United States constructed Naval Air Facilities on both Tern Island and Midway Atoll.  Tern Island was altered dramatically by increasing its size with dredged coral, removing the vegetation, and constructing buildings and an airstrip.  This caused most seabirds to stop nesting on the island during the four years the Navy occupied the island.    Following the departure of the Navy, albatrosses and other seabirds once again returned to nest on Tern Island.  At Midway Atoll, the Navy could not keep the albatrosses from nesting on the two islands where they set up operations.  This made landing a plane very difficult because albatrosses soared above the runway, and a plane could crash if it struck one.  Navy personnel tried to reduce plane-bird collisions by reducing the number of birds.  In one year, they destroyed the eggs of 200,000 seabirds of various species.  For the next 10 years they killed 5,000 - 25,000 albatrosses per year that nested near the runways.  Even though these measures decreased the population of albatrosses, bird air strikes continued at a similar rate because albatrosses from other parts of the islands continued to fly over the runway.   Luckily for the albatrosses, relatively few planes have flown to Midway during the past 30 years and albatross control measures were discontinued.  In 1993 the Naval Air Facility on Midway closed, and this past June the islands became part of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.  Albatross-plane collisions should now be even fewer, and albatross lives should be even longer!

As you can see, albatrosses are affected by humans in many ways.


This section was written by Paul Sievert.  Thanks Paul!

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This page was last updated on March 16, 1998 07:40 PM