The Wooden Boat Festival has come around again, an event I always associate with the legendary bird of the southern oceans, the albatross.
It’s easy to see why – during the 2013 festival I actually saw the lanky shape of a shy albatross not 40 metres off-shore of the Hobart docks..
I thought at the time the albatross would make an apt symbol for the festival, particularly the shy albatross which breeds exclusively on just a few Tasmanian islands.
I had been told many years previously that it was possible to see shy albatrosses in zig-zag flight on the bay but I hardly believed it. Then during the festival I saw one on its slender wings riding the crests of waves on a particularly windy day. The waves were topped with white caps as the wind whipped up a spray, and tugged at the sails of the wooden boats docked in Constitution Dock.
Albatrosses are the great travellers of the seas with some species, like the bird with the world’ largest wingspan, the wandering albatross, easily circumnavigating the globe each year. The shy albatross lacks the giant size of the “wanderer”. falling into a category of medium-sized albatrosses, the mollymawks.
Because albatrosses largely fish in remote seas, only coming ashore to breed on islands, they are rarely seen except by commercial fishermen working in harsh waters or by birdwatchers who mount pelagic birding trips.
Such a birding excursion in Tasmania runs from Eaglehawk Neck, and attracts birdwatchers from all over the world.
Although birders might revel in the sight of albatrosses plying the oceans, using the updraft from the waves to give them lift with a minimum of expended energy, the fishing industry has not been kind to these magnificent birds, or indeed to other pelagic species.
Two aspects of modern fishing are putting the albatross in peril. The first comes from long-line fishing, in which lines sometimes kilometres long are strung out behind ships to catch fish. Albatrosses and other seabirds take the bait and are drowned.
Research by marine biologists suggest that an estimated 100,000 albatrosses are killed in this way annually, although in recent years great strides have been made in designing lines that sink below the surface, out of reach of albatross beaks. The use of these lines has also been mandated.
Another threat to the albatross is the discarding of fish offal from factory ships, which attracts the birds for a quick and easy feed. In such instances, instead of being drowned by fishing lines, the albatrosses are caught up in trawler nets and dragged to their deaths.
Of the 22 species of albatross, all attract some level of concern, three being critically endangered. And the carnage on our oceans doesn’t end there: among the world’s 346 seabird species, 97 (28 per cent) are globally threatened and nearly half of all seabird species are experiencing population declines.
The sky albatross could not only be a symbol for the boat festival, but for conservation efforts to save our the magnificent birds of our seas.