Written by By Nadia Vaisumallapalli, CNN Shilpa Hall, CNN
Albatrosses — a powerful presence in the oceans’ skies and the birds that many humans hold near and dear — are slowly being driven to extinction, a new study has found.
For decades scientists have estimated the population of the species to be between 50,000 to 165,000.
Now, new research in the US Pacific Northwest that analyzed satellite-based data of nearly 3 million flight paths across the region in the past 40 years has found that it may be closer to 4 million, a drop of at least 46%.
The study, conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in collaboration with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, analyzed the seasons and the numbers of albatrosses that took off and landed across the Pacific Northwest over an eight-year period.
“It’s affecting some albatrosses that have been together for the longest time,” said Ian Greig, a senior scientist with the IUCN and the study’s lead author.
“There was a 19% drop between 1973 and 2012 in the population of the beautiful Albatrosses of Alert Bay.
“This is happening in the middle of a conservation boom where the North Pacific Ocean is seeing lots of high conservation values of turtles, whales, dolphins, and of course, the Albatrosses.”
Greig says that the low numbers of these large birds have been the result of El Niño — the weather phenomenon, which has affected the region in recent years.
However, he says it’s “not surprising” the decline in the population of some of the species is being associated with El Niño because the birds have not been able to feast on the fatty prey that is in abundance during the annual cycle.
Greig says that the combined effects of climate change, growing pollution and ocean acidification are likely to make the number of albatrosses drop further over the next decade.
Native to the deep ocean
The albatross is one of the most iconic species in the ocean. It is a popular bird for tourists and lovers of wildlife as it glides around the sky — it would be almost invisible if its feathers were covered in protective material.
The migratory birds spend most of their time on the seafloor, and they have been left almost completely exposed to the effects of climate change as they travel further away from the ocean.
Greig says that many species are being impacted by climate change, such as the Hawaiian monk seal which has depleted its population after coastal development in Hawaii put it at risk of becoming isolated from the ocean.
It would be easier for the monk seal to get by in its new, isolated environment if the oceans were not warming. However, Greig says they are not going to be able to abandon their shallow environments, putting the species in even more danger.
Greig has no doubt that climate change will have “huge implications for the biodiversity of the oceans” and that it will become harder to see the difference between a penguin and a seabird.