Short-tailed albatrosses (Phoebastria albatrus) once numbered in the millions before commercial hunting in the early 20th century nearly drove the species to extinction. While the population continues to increase, it is still less than 1% of its estimated pre-exploitation population size and breeds on only 2 of the possibly 14 historical sites in the western North Pacific. Furthermore, one of these islands (Torishima, Izu Islands) is volcanically unstable and the other (Minami Kojima, Senkaku Islands) is part of a multi-national territorial dispute and, therefore, politically unstable. This species is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) and delisting criteria require a third breeding colony to be established on a “safe” island.

New Colony Establishment

To expedite the establishment of a third colony, a chick translocation and hand-rearing program was initiated in 2006. The first two years were trials with surrogate species and the short-tailed albatross translocations occurred over the following five years. 2012 breeding was the fifth and final year of the translocation and hand-rearing project. The main focus of research was to experimentally test the efficacy of translocation and hand-rearing of albatross chicks by comparing growth, physiological health indices, post-fledging survival, and migration patterns with a control group of naturally-reared chicks at the source population. Because albatrosses remain at sea for several years before returning to breed, we used small, solar powered GPS tracking devices to track their progress after leaving the colony. This allowed us to make annual adjustments in rearing methods that could help increase survival post-fledging.  

Success will ultimately be judged by continued recruitment and breeding at the new colony site in future decades, however, successes to date are beyond initial expectations with a marked increase in visitation of the new colony site by hand- and  naturally-reared birds, including two pairs, one of which laid the first egg at the translocation site in November 2012 and by May 2016 three pairs short-tailed albatross pairs had raised chicks on Mukojima and neighboring islands!  These are the first breeders in the Ogasawara (Bonin) Islands since their extirpation in the 1930s - over 80 years ago! Many of the fledglings that we tracked (one continuously for 5 years!) traveled into U.S. waters allowing us to evaluate important habitats for this species and potential fishery interactions. This latter contribution is particularly important because the juvenile age class appears to have very different movement and distribution patterns than adults/sub-adults and therefore overlap a larger variety of fisheries. Ultimately, this project aims to expedite the recovery of this endangered species. To learn more about these and other efforts to enhance short-tailed albatross recovery, check out the USFWS website Short-tailed Albatross Central.

Short-tailed albatrosses
Torishima Island circa 1930
Albatross population estimates using satellite data

Of the two major current breeding colonies of short-tailed albatross, one is within an island group, the Senkaku Islands, of disputed ownership between Japan and China. A de-facto refuge, biologists have not been allowed access to conduct population surveys since 2002, however, the Senkakus may contain 20% of the total breeding population of short-tailed albatross. 

Begining in 2015, we aimed to test whether breeding populations of short-tailed albatross can be estimated using satellite data from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 and WorldView-3 Satellite with ENVI image processing software. Using several albatross species at multiple colonies in Hawaii and Japan allowed us to test species identification accuracy and determine the correction factor(s) needed to ground truth satellite counts of unknown populations on the Senkakus. Based on this imagery work, this method may be helpful scientists and resource managers looking to estimate remote and/or inaccessible areas, or areas at more frequent intervals, especially where human presence impacts ground-based counts or disturbs other species.

Short-tailed albatross adult in flight. Photo: R. Suryan

Collaborators
  • Bureau of Land Management
  • Pacific Rim Conservation
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)-Alaska Region
  • USFWS-Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge
  • Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, Abiko Japan
  • Japan Ministry of Environment, Tokyo
    Publications and Reports:

    Dolliver, JE. 2019. Using Satellite Imagery to Count Nesting Albatross from Space. M.S. Thesis, Oregon State Unviersity, Corvallis, USA. 

    Orben RA, O’Connor AJ, Suryan RM, Ozaki K, Sato F, Deguchi T. 2018. Ontogenetic changes in at-sea distributions of immature short-tailed albatrosses Phoebastria albatrus. Endangered Species Research 35:23 - 37.

    Deguchi, T., F. Sato, M. Eda, H. Izumi, H. Suzuki, R. M. Suryan, E. W. Lance, H. Hasegawa, and K. Ozaki. 2016. Translocation and hand-rearing result in short-tailed albatrosses returning to breed in the Ogasawara Islands 80 years after extirpation. Animal Conservation 20, 4:341-349.

    Deguchi, T., R.M. Suryan, and K. Ozaki. 2014. Muscle damage and behavioral consequences from prolonged handling of albatross chicks for transmitter attachment.  Journal of Wildlife Management 78:1302-1309.

    Deguchi, T., R.M. Suryan, K. Ozaki, J.F. Jacobs, F. Sato, N. Nakamura, G.R. Balogh. 2014. Early successes in translocation and hand-rearing of endangered albatrosses for species conservation and island restoration. Oryx 48: 195-203.

    Deguchi, T., J. Jacobs, T. Harada, L. Perriman, Y. Watanabe, F. Sato, N. Nakamura, K. Ozaki, G. Balogh. 2012. Translocation and hand-rearing techniques for establishing a colony of threatened albatross. Bird Conservation International, 22, 66-81.

    Ozaki, K. 2011. Journey of the Short-tailed Albatross, Tracking Young Birds by Satellite. Green Letter.

    Suryan, R.M. and K.N. Fischer. 2010Stable isotope analysis and satellite tracking reveal inter-specific resource partitioning of non-breeding albatrosses (Phoebastria spp.) off Alaska. Canadian Journal of Zoology 88:299-305.

    Suryan, R.M., D.J. Anderson, S.A. Shaffer, D.D. Roby, Y. Tremblay, D.P. Costa, P.R. Sievert, F. Sato, K. Ozaki, G. Balogh, N. Nakamura. 2008. Wind, waves, and wing loading: Morphological specialization may limit range expansion of endangered albatrosses. PLoS ONE, 3(12): e4016. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004016.

    Suryan, R.M., K.S. Dietrich, E.F. Melvin, G.R. Balogh, F. Sato, K. Ozaki. 2007. Migratory routes of short-tailed albatrosses: Use of exclusive economic zones of North Pacific Rim countries and spatial overlap with commercial fisheries in Alaska. Biological Conservation 137:450-460.

    Suryan, R.M., F. Sato, G. Balogh, K.D. Hyrenbach, P. Sievert, and K. Ozaki. 2006. Foraging destinations and marine habitat use of short-tailed albatrosses: A multi-scale approach using first-passage time analysis. Deep-Sea Research II 53:370-386.