Buller’s Albatross
© Eric J. Woehler

World Albatross Day 2024: The South Tasman Sea as a candidate High Seas MPA


World Albatross Day is celebrated on the 19th of June to raise awareness of the conservation crisis albatrosses face. This date marks the signing of the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP). It is 20 years since ACAP came into force, and 2024 is also the 20th anniversary of the Seabird Tracking Database, so while there is a lot of work to do, we have a lot to celebrate! This year’s theme “Marine Protected Areas – Safeguarding our Oceans” explores the connection between albatrosses and the ocean and how Marine Protected Areas can help improve their conservation status. 


There is no doubt that albatrosses are fascinating creatures. These seabirds with the largest wingspan of any bird (up to 3.5 metres!) spend most of their lives at sea flying for thousands of kilometres across the ocean in search of food and can live for more than 70 years. 


Wandering Albatross have the largest known wingspan of any bird (top; © Ben Lascelles) and can weight up to 10kg (bottom; © Ana Carneiro)


Unfortunately, they are among the most threatened seabird species worldwide, with 15 of the 22 albatross species at risk of extinction. Fisheries bycatch, invasive alien species and climate change, or a combination of them, are the main threats behind declining populations of albatrosses. 


Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) have effectively safeguarded biodiversity in national waters, including some albatrosses’ breeding habitats, such as the Tristan albatross in the Tristan da Cunha Marine Protection Zone, and black-browed albatross and grey-headed albatross in the Yaganes MPA. 


However, albatrosses spend a considerable amount of time on the high seas, highlighting the need to protect areas beyond national jurisdiction. Designating high seas MPAs will soon be possible through the new High Seas Treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Palau, Chile, Belize, Seychelles, Monaco Mauritius and the Federated States of Micronesia are the first countries to have ratified it already, but the High Seas Treaty will only come into force when 60 countries have ratified. 


The creation of MPAs on the high seas must prioritise sites of biological importance, such as the South Tasman Sea. This highly biodiverse area boasts some of the highest seabird densities in the world. Many species use this highly productive area for foraging during multiple life-history stages and in both breeding and non-breeding seasons, such as the Antipodean albatross (check out this live tracking!). 

The South Tasman Sea is a biodiversity hotspot being championed by the High Seas Alliance © High Seas Alliance


Fifteen of the 22 species of albatross forage in the South Tasman Sea including the Buller’s albatross (Thalassarche bulleri), the Antipodean albatross (Diomedea antipodensis), the white-capped albatross (Thalassarche steadi) and the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) that are listed as either ‘vulnerable’ or ‘near threatened’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It’s also a critically important site for sharks, whales and other marine life. 


Buller’s Albatross was chosen as one of the featured species in WAD2024 © Eric J. Woehler  


The Seabird Tracking Database hosts tracking data for all species of albatross and provides an opportunity for collaborative science to identify the seasonality and countries of origin of the birds using the site that can be used to develop a high seas MPA proposal. Such an approach was successfully applied in the North Atlantic with the first high seas MPA based on seabird tracking data designated in 2021 by the OSPAR Commission: the North Atlantic Current and Evlanov Seabasin (NACES) MPA that protects up to 5 million birds of 21 species. 


Both the South Tasman Sea and the NACES MPA are great examples of how tracking data can provide a data-driven approach to identify sites suitable for protection and develop effective management strategies for albatross and many other migratory marine species. 


Do you have seabird tracking data and want to contribute to the protection of albatross and other seabirds? Join the over 250 people that have made their tracking data available to request via BirdLife’s Seabird Tracking Database!