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Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria Albatrus)

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COSEWIC
Executive Summary

Short-tailed Albatross
Phoebastria Albatrus

Species Information

The Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus (Pallas 1769), formerly Diomedea albatrus, is a large-bodied seabird with long narrow wings adapted for soaring just above the water surface. Adults are mostly white and black, with a pale-yellow head and pale legs and feet. In contrast, first year birds are wholly chocolate brown. The large pink bill is a distinguishing characteristic across age classes. Full adult plumage is attained after 12 to 20 years. The sexes are alike, with no seasonal variation in plumage.

Distribution

The Short-tailed Albatross now breeds on only two islands south of Japan. Historically, colonies were known from at least seven other sites within Japan and Taiwan. The marine range of the species extends from Siberia south to the China coast, into the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, south to Baja California, and through the North Pacific including the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Once considered common throughout this range, it is now only casual in many areas. In Canada, the species occurs exclusively off the coast of British Columbia, predominantly from February through October.

Habitat

Short-tailed Albatrosses are colonial breeders, typically nesting on isolated, windswept, offshore islands. Nests are described as scoops in the substrate, lined with and built up by grass. Very little is known of the marine habitat requirements of the species, particularly those around the breeding colonies. Historical records indicate an abundance of Short-tailed Albatrosses in the shallow waters of North America. Recent sightings also indicate a nearshore tendency. The observed patterns, both past and present, likely coincide with the areas of upwelling and high biological productivity characteristic of coastal North America. The importance of the pelagic environment is unknown due to low observer coverage in these areas. 

Biology

Like all pelagic seabirds, the Short-tailed Albatross spends most of its life at sea, returning to land only to breed. They are long-lived birds that are slow to mature, and breeding females produce a single egg per year. This is compensated for by a low natural rate of adult mortality. Following breeding, individuals disperse north to the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea. Proportionally more immatures (than adults) have been observed in the eastern and northern regions of the Pacific. The diet is known to include squid, fish, shrimp and other crustaceans.

Population Sizes and Trends

Short-tailed Albatrosses once numbered in the millions. Over-exploitation in the breeding colonies at the beginning of the 20th century drove the species to near extinction. The most recent estimate of total global population size is 1600 individuals. As a result of protection and persistent conservation efforts, the trend is one of steady increase.

Limiting Factors and Threats

The greatest threats to the species’ recovery are volcanic eruptions on the breeding grounds and incidental mortality associated with the longline fishing industry. Oil fouling represents a significant potential threat as well. Additional impacts include those from plastics pollution, interspecific competition and introduced species; however these remain unquantified. A catastrophic volcanic eruption on the main breeding island, Torishima, has the potential to significantly reduce the numbers of breeding birds. This risk is buffered by adult and immature non-breeding birds that remain at sea during the breeding season. Incidental mortality in the longline fishing industry could slow the species' population recovery in the event of a random stochastic event such as a volcanic eruption or major oil spill. Of the risks outlined, the incidental mortality in the longline fishing industry represents the greatest ongoing threat to the continued and increasing occurrence of the Short-tailed Albatross within Canadian waters. Mortality associated with oil fouling represents the greatest potential threat in this regard.

Special Significance of the Species

The Short-tailed Albatross is at risk world-wide, and the recovery of the species will likely be of great interest to the international scientific and conservation community.

Existing Protection or Other Status Designations

Status designations for the Short-tailed Albatross include: Vulnerable listing by the World Conservation Union (IUCN); coverage by CITES and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species; protection of species and breeding habitat in Japan; Endangered listing in the United States and the State of Alaska; SZN ranking in British Columbia by NatureServe.