IT looks like David Attenborough has been making it up as he goes along again.
On Sunday evening, the legendary BBC presenter took viewers to Antarctica, the southernmost continent, for the first episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet. Now 93, Sir David emphasised the shocking effects humans are having on this untouched frozen desert by contributing to global warming. He revealed how the population of albatross – large seabirds that live in cold conditions – has more than halved in 15 years.
He said this is due to the warming of the Southern Ocean, which is causing more severe weather patterns than ever seen before and the young birds simply cannot deal with it.
Sir David went on: ‘Summer in Antarctica is a time of plenty, when most humpback whales are able to put on the reserves they need for the whole year. But the wildlife in these waters faces an uncertain future.
‘The Southern Ocean is warming and 90 per cent of the world’s ice lies in Antarctica. In some parts, the rate that it is melting is doubling every decade. Sea levels are rising, but there is a more immediate threat.’
Sir David explained how albatross chicks are often left on their own by their parents.He added: ‘The warming of the coldest region on Earth is having a profound effect on global weather patterns. This change in the climate is already being felt right here.
‘This Grey-Headed Albatross chick is four weeks old. So far, it has been sheltered from the gales by its parents. It is the only chick that they will have in two years.
‘The delicate touching of the beaks strengthens their bond, but these tender moments cannot last forever. As a chick grows, so does its appetite, so one parent has to leave to find food before the other returns. Parting is a big step and they take time over it.’
The chick was then shown struggling to stay alive on its own, before meeting a sad destiny which clearly touched the presenter. Sir David finalised: ‘For the first time in its life, this chick is alone.
‘The Antarctic is the windiest continent and in recent years climate change has brought storms that are more frequent and even more brutal. Winds now regularly reach 70mph, and the albatross chicks must try to stay on their nests.
‘Surviving the storm is one thing, but now off the nest in these freezing temperatures, this chick has just hours to live. The brutal conditions have taken their toll, some have succumbed to the exposure. The albatross population here has more than halved in the last 15 years.’
The Southern Ocean has been warming? Afraid not, Sir David, the opposite is true:
Sea surface temperatures there have actually been dropping since the 1980s, and are no higher now than in the 19th century.
And as any half-competent meteorologist could have told him, global warming should in theory lead to weaker extratropical storms, not stronger. This is because of the Poles warming faster than the tropics, thus reducing the temperature differentials which affect the strength of storms.
The great climatologist H H Lamb was always very clear on this and found that storms in the post-medieval Little Ice Age tended to be more powerful than now.
As for those poor albatross, bird experts could have told Sir David that their decline is due to industrial fishing and not global warming. Indeed, the Guardian ran an article earlier this year, describing the problem.
Industrial fishing vessels that accidentally kill tens of thousands of albatross each year routinely ignore regulations designed to save the birds from extinction, according to research.
Using satellite data, investigators found that vessels employing longline fishing techniques showed a ‘low level of compliance’ with measures to reduce albatross deaths.
Longliners target tuna and other species, but their fishing lines – which can be up to 80 miles long – also unintentionally trap, drown and harm seabirds, as well as turtles, dolphins and other marine life, a process known as ‘bycatch’.
Modern fishing methods have been identified as a major danger to plummeting albatross populations, threatening to drive almost three-quarters of all species to extinction, said Birdlife International, which undertook the research in conjunction with Global Fishing Watch.
Under a red list compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 15 out of 22 albatross species are considered endangered. The study, which drew on satellite data to map the behaviour of longliners in the Indian, Atlantic and western central Pacific ocean, revealed that just 15 per cent of the vessels used a measure known as ‘night-setting’, which involves putting lines down at night. The technique is one of three mitigation measures designed to protect albatross, which only feed during the day.
Albatross, petrels and other seabirds are ‘irresistibly drawn’ to the trailing, baited longlines, said Stephanie Winnard, International Marine Project Officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Each year, an estimated 100,000 birds are hooked and drowned by longline and trawl fisheries.
‘This level of bycatch in the fishing industry is hugely unsustainable for birds that can take up to 10 years to start breeding,’ said Winnard, who added that the findings were ‘truly powerful’ for the way the data shed light into the ‘opaque world’ of global fisheries and their impact on ocean biodiversity.
A study published in 2011 estimated the bycatch of seabirds of longline fisheries to be between 160,000 and 320,000 annually. Bird Life International has gone one stage further:
Too many youngsters were going missing after fledging. With no knowledge of where they fly to, it was much harder to halt their decline. Now, nine satellite-tagged juveniles have successfully left the nest. We can watch their journey – and so can you.
A single egg sits nestled between swaying tussock grass on a windswept, sub-Antarctic island. The parents incubate the egg for 72 days, alternating shifts. It hatches, exploding into a gigantic cotton wool ball of a chick. Its parents dote on it, providing more than half a kilogram of food a day, and it matures into a sleek, dapper fledgling.
And then it disappears.
This is the problem that has confounded British Antarctic Survey (BAS) researchers on South Georgia, a remote British Overseas Territory in the middle of the South Atlantic.
We’re all familiar with the tradition of youngsters taking a gap year to explore the world and find themselves, but juvenile Grey-Headed Albatross, Thalassarche chrysostoma, take this rite of passage to the extreme. When they fledge, they rove across the Southern Ocean, plucking food from the sea. We don’t know exactly where they go, but we do know that it’s a different range to the adults. And then, after around seven years, they return to their colony of hatching to breed. Or, at least, they used to.
It’s a problem that needs to be solved fast, because the Grey-Headed Albatross is in crisis. The reason for its endangered status: A catastrophic population decline at South Georgia, its largest breeding stronghold. Since 1977, numbers have more than halved, and over the last decade the decline has accelerated to a worrying five per cent a year – far faster than any other albatross species. The difference on the islands is stark – colonies that once teemed with nests and chicks are now sparse and lacklustre, with bare stretches of tussock grass swaying in the wind.
Richard Phillips, BAS seabird researcher, explains: ‘We’ve been intensively monitoring albatrosses on Bird Island for over 40 years, and from recording re-sightings of ringed birds, we worked out that survival rates in the first few years after leaving the colony were far lower than expected, which was a major contributor to the population decline. However, we had little idea of what was happening to the birds before they returned.’
Their only lead was a handful of reports from Japanese longline fishing vessels. ‘Japanese fisheries were reporting Grey-Headed Albatross juveniles as bycatch,’ says Stephanie Winnard, ‘But there was some confusion over whether they were being wrongly identified, as they are notoriously hard to distinguish from juveniles of other species.’
There was only one way to know for sure. And so in May 2018, 16 satellite tags were attached to albatross chicks on Bird Island, in collaboration with BirdLife International’s Global Seabird Programme. Field Scientist Derren Fox recalls the ease of tagging a bird that has evolved with no natural mammalian predators: ‘Tagging was very straightforward. It took in the region of four to five minutes for each bird, and we selected healthy, well-developed chicks to increase the chances of them fledging successfully and surviving as long as possible.’
Then, in early June, the moment they had all been waiting for arrived. One by one, the albatross set off on their maiden voyages – and the team watched with bated breath to see what happened next. ‘It is a real privilege to watch the chicks fledge, says Derren. ‘You can’t help but get attached to them, visiting some of the colonies so frequently, especially as towards the end of the season they suffer so much predation within the colonies.’
The predation that Derren refers to is the threat of giant petrels and skuas, which attack the naïve fledglings. And this threat is only getting worse. In a vicious circle, the sparsity of Grey-Headed Albatross on South Georgia is allowing giant petrel attacks to become more and more successful. Tragically, seven of the 16 tagged juveniles never made it off the island for this reason.
Fortunately, nine intrepid explorers have escaped unscathed, and their route is already beginning to engross the team. ‘Initial results have shown some of the juveniles headed to the area where they were reported to have been killed by the Japanese fishery, which is the first time we’ve tracked the species to that area,’ says Stephanie Winnard. This ties in with recent research by the RSPB and BAS, which showed high overlap between Grey-Headed Albatrosses from South Georgia and the extensive tuna fisheries of Japan and Chinese Taiwan.
As a supposed expert on zoology, you might have thought Attenborough would have checked first with the experts, before jumping to conclusions.
This article first appeared on Not a Lot of People Know That on October 28, 2019, and is republished by kind permission.