The number of threats that migratory species face is inherently high, because they are at risk at their breeding sites, at their non-breeding sites, and while on passage. No group of birds exemplifies the problem better than most highly mobile of any bird group: albatrosses. These are the most threatened group of birds in the world, and their status is deteriorating faster than any other group. The threats to albatrosses at sea are at the root of many species’ conservation troubles. They are vulnerable to accidental catch (bycatch) from tuna longline fishing boats. However, when Ross Wanless took up his doctoral research on the poorly studied Tristan Albatross, he focussed on its breeding site, Gough Island in the South Atlantic Ocean.
The outcome of his research changed island conservation practices globally. Ross showed that house mice, the small, common and exceptionally widespread species that occurs in homes and on islands around the world, was causing problems. They were behaving more like rats, and were nibbling away at hundreds of albatross chicks each year (and millions of other seabird chicks too), at rates that were high enough to cause the Tristan Albatross to decrease. Added to this the at-sea risks from longlines and the species was in grave danger. Now, island conservation efforts routinely include the eradication of mice as a key objective, unlike before his research when mice were largely ignored as a conservation concern for breeding seabirds.
Dr Wanless still focusses his energies on saving albatrosses from extinction, but directed towards addressing at-sea threats. He is part of BirdLife International’s Marine Programme, and contributes to efforts geared towards reducing seabird mortality from fishing. The successes in this field are an extraordinary example of conservation practice and are changing how fishing operations work. All the fisheries in South Africa in which Ross’s team operates have been able to reduce seabird bycatch by massive amounts, for minimal cost/effort. All five of the world’s tuna commissions have modified their rules to ensure that seabird bycatch is minimised. And Ross works directly with major Asian fleets to assist them in modifying their operations for seabirds without compromising the efficiency of their operations.
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