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The albatross around our neck

Alan Braunholtz

Anyone with an interest in eclectic and long-term gambling could do worse than checking out http://www.ladbrokes.com/bigbirdrace. No bets, though, since in the U.S., overseas Internet gambling is illegal.

The big bird race follows the migratory exploits of radio-tagged albatrosses from Tasmania to Cape Horn, a journey of 6,000 miles and five months. There will be daily, weekly and monthly bets.

The race could achieve a couple of goals: finding out where the albatrosses stop and feed and raising public awareness about the plight of this famous bird. Both are needed if we are going to do something before its extinction.



Albatrosses are the slender-winged masters of the southern ocean trade winds. There are 21 species, totaling about 4 million birds. The wandering albatross has a 12-foot wingspan. Juvenile or non-breeding birds can circle the earth several times without touching land. They live about 80 years and like most long-lived species, reproduce slowly.

The albatross is featured in Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner,” a tale that binds listeners with vicarious adventures more than any moral message. If you ever wondered where the phrase “an albatross around your neck” came from, it’s this poem. In it a sailor kills an albatross for no reason, bringing calamity to his whole ship. It’s the standard Christian tale of sin, recognizing sin, punishment and repentance before redemption. The spirit of the seaman’s act (indifference) is as important as the act itself, with Coleridge suggesting a crime against nature is a crime against God.



Long-lining by commercial fishing fleets is decimating some seabird populations. Miles of baited hooks are lined out behind a boat to catch swordfish and tuna, but they also snag albatrosses and other sea life. Bird-scaring lines can drastically reduce this unwanted by catch. Studies in New Zealand waters found that the number of seabirds caught and drowned went from 4,000 to less than 20, and Japanese fleets reported a 92 percent reduction.

These bird-scaring lines are given free to any Alaskan fishermen who want one. But few can be bothered to use them even though they also reduce the amount of wasted bait. The U.S. Hawaiian and Alaskan fleets set more than 210 million hooks.

The whole situation is similar to the killing of dolphins by drift netting, which only changed to “dolphin safe” fishing practices after public outcry and pressure. Hopefully, the Ladbrokes project will raise our knowledge of where the albatrosses feed and with public pressure enable regulations and agreements to be reached that protect them there.



With dolphins, commercial pressure from U.S. markets had a huge effect on callous fishing fleets. The ones with the worst “sin against nature” reputations are South American and Asian. The “if you don’t fish responsibility, we won’t buy from you” is a great example of consumer power.

Unfortunately the World Trade Organization is dominated by business interests and regards environmental regulations as unnecessary restrictions, undermining them more often than not.

I feel if a country’s people want to collectively do the right thing and label tuna or other food stuffs accurately as dolphin safe, etc., or only want to import steroid-free beef, that is up to them and the WTO shouldn’t have overriding sovereignty. It’s a strange contradiction that politicians will rally against some international agreements as too restricting while giving away the farm (or factory, landscape) to the WTO. At the moment, trade agreements look to favor business over people and the environment. “Fair trade, not free trade” is a relevant slogan.

We don’t live on the seas, so they’re out of sight and out of mind. A new report from the Ocean Advisory Panel (a mix of experts and presidential appointees from all fields) recommends that we start taking more interest. We’ve almost destroyed them and the renewable source of food they provide. They suggest that to restore this lost economic value we shift from a system of (poor) harvest regulation to one that focuses on the stewardship of entire ecosystems and soon.

Sounds familiar! That’s what the Forest Service tried before President Bush reversed it to one of commercial giveaways to the timber and mining industries.

Pity, but an incredible resource of food, recreation, beauty will be irreplaceably damaged unless you, the public, get very angry at government and the fishing industry’s treatment of the world’s oceans.

It makes sense to look out for the world that supports us, or in the Ancient Mariners words, “He prayeth well who loveth well, Both man, man bird and beast.”

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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