Great Britain Ratifies Seabird Treaty

LONDON, UK, April 13, 2004 (ENS) - The British government and three of its overseas territories - the Falklands, British Antarctic Territory, and South Georgia/South Sandwich Islands - have ratified the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. The government will take steps to reduce the 300,000 worldwide seabird deaths caused by longline fishing every year.

UK Fisheries Minister, Elliot Morley announced the ratification at the Waterbirds Around the World Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland April 4. The UK has joined the five other nations which have already ratified the international treaty, which which came into force two months ago.

The treaty also addresses the destruction of important breeding and feeding areas, pollution, and disease in seabird colonies.


Southern Royal Albatross (Photo by Felix Heintzenberg/BIOFOKUS courtesy BirdLife International)
In 1996, just three albatross species were threatened, but today all 21 species are at risk of extinction. A number of petrel species also face extinction, and all these sea birds are at risk as a result of longlining, says BirdLife International.

The black-browed, wandering and grey-headed albatrosses, and white-chinned and southern giant petrels that nest on UK Overseas Territories all now have a better chance of survival since the UK has adopted the treaty, BirdLife says.

Now the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the BirdLife UK partner organization, will lobby ministers to extend ratification to include the last key UK overseas territory, Tristan da Cunha.

Conservationists are also urging people to sign a petition, to be presented to the United Nations in June, calling for action against pirate longline fishing. The petitioners' goal is more than 100,000 signatures.

"After a long delay, UK ratification is welcome and timely news and a hugely significant breakthrough in our battle to prevent albatross extinctions," said Euan Dunn, RSPB head of marine policy as the UK government signed the agreement.

Ratification by Tristan da Cunha is vital with just 9,000 Tristan albatrosses remaining, the conservationists say.

The spectacled petrel also breeds only on Tristan where the world population of less than 10,000 birds survives on one small island. With up to 700 of them killed annually by Brazilian longline fisheries, this species is classed as critically endangered by the IUCN-World Conservation Union.

Dunn said, "Not just Tristan, but all the nations into whose waters these species range must urgently ratify the treaty if we are to prevent extinctions. The strength of the treaty is in its international cooperation to protect seabirds, which cross oceanic boundaries at will."

The albatross protection movement got a lift last week from His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, who spoke about the problems facing albatrosses on the closing day of the conference April 7.

The Prince told of his special affection for these birds and how he had first learned of their plight through the efforts of BirdLife International and other non-government organizations. He welcomed the international agreement, saying it was a "huge achievement."

The treaty includes legally binding commitments by nations ratifying it to protect seabirds, both at sea and on their nesting grounds.

These include the compulsory use of mitigation measures, such as setting lines underwater or only at night, trailing a bird-scaring line and prohibiting offal discharge while fishing, to reduce numbers of birds accidentally caught during fishing operations.

The Prince also commented on the problem of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, which appears to be getting worse. More than 1,000 pirate vessels operate under flags of convenience and are believed to be responsible for around a third of all seabird deaths caused by longlining, BirdLife estimates.

His Royal Highness agreed with the conclusions of a Greenpeace report, which recommended closing ports to these illegal ships, closing markets for their fish, and penalizing the vesselsí owners and operators.

The Prince said that the fate of the albatross may be the ultimate test of whether humankind is serious about conservation.