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Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria Albatrus)


Global Range


Historically, breeding colonies of the Short-tailed Albatross were known from at least nine sites, all within the sub-tropical western North Pacific (Hasegawa 1984) (Figure 2). These include the Izu, Bonin, Daito, Senkaku and western volcanic groups of Japan, and Agincourt Island and the Pescadore Islands of Taiwan (Federal Register 2000, Harrison 1983). It is possible that other, undocumented, nesting colonies may have also existed (Hasegawa and DeGange 1982). Of those known, only two are now active, both following periods of inactivity: Tori-shima (Izu group) and Minami-kojima (Senkaku Islands) in Japan (Figure 2). While individuals have recently been observed landing on Bonin Island, no breeding has been recorded (P. Sievert pers. comm. 2003).

Records from the 1930s, and recent observations, suggest that the Short-tailed Albatross may have once nested on Midway Atoll in the Hawaiian chain. However, within the records there are no confirmed historical breeding accounts. While a single incubating individual was found in November 1993, and again in 1995 and 1997, none of the eggs laid were viable (Federal Register 2000).

Figure 2: Global distribution of the Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus

Figure 2: Global distribution of the Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus, from McDermond and Morgan (1993).

From McDermond and Morgan (1993).

A number of early naturalists believed the Short-tailed Albatross bred on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Apparently unaware of the species’ winter breeding on islands further to the southwest, they mistook the abundance of the albatross from early May to late October in the Aleutians as an indication of breeding activity. An early explorer also recorded natives exploiting nests for both birds and eggs, and Alaska Aleut folklore referred to breeding birds. However, breeding was never verified. While the remains of adult Short-tailed Albatrosses have been recorded from archaeological investigations of Aleut middens, no fledging remains have been discovered (Yesner 1976). This evidence, in addition to knowledge of past and present breeding distributions, suggests that former breeding in Alaska was highly unlikely (Yesner 1976, Sherburne 1993). 


The marine range of the Short-tailed Albatross extends from Siberia south to the China coast, into the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, south to Baja California, and throughout the North Pacific including the northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Figure 2). 

Historically the species was considered common throughout this range, irrespective of season (review by Sanger 1972, AOU 1998). However, the dramatic population declines during the late 1800s-early 1900s, the result of hunting in the breeding colonies (see sections below), were strongly reflected in the number of observations at sea with few records of the species away from the breeding grounds between the 1940s and 1970 (Tramontano 1970). Sightings since this time indicate the Short-tailed Albatross still wanders over much of its original range, but in greatly reduced numbers (review by Sanger 1972, Hasegawa and DeGange 1982).

Canadian Range

In Canada, the Short-tailed Albatross occurs exclusively as a nonbreeding species off the coast of British Columbia; most records occur from February through October (Table 1). Historically the species was the dominant near-shore albatross, and appears to have been of considerable importance to the native people in those areas investigated. Approximately 27-40% of all the bones excavated from the Yuquot midden at Nootka Sound, on Vancouver Island, were from Short-tailed Albatrosses (McAllister 1980). The species likely constituted a major part of the spring and summer diet for this region, and appears to have been hunted long before whaling was practised (McAllister 1980). Short-tailed Albatross bones also formed a distinctive portion of the samples collected from the Maple Bank site in Victoria. However, the skeletal elements present suggest the species was used for different purposes at this site (Crockford et al. 1997). Crockford (2003) summarized all available information on the locations where Short-tailed Albatross bones had been found in middens in BC. The locations included Digby Island (west of Prince Rupert) to islands within the Queen Charlotte archipelago: the west coast of Vancouver Island from Nootka Island, Tofino/Ucluelet/Barkley Sound area to Esquimalt Harbour and the entrance to Esquimalt Lagoon: and North Pender Island.

In the late 19th century, the Short-tailed Albatross was reported by Kermode (1904) as “tolerably common on both coasts of Vancouver island, but more abundant on the west coast”. In April 1894, he found it quite common near Cape Beale. In 1889 (exact date unknown), two specimens were obtained in Juan de Fuca Strait off Victoria and prepared as display mounts. Campbell et al. (1990) state that the final record for British Columbia in the 19th century was a bird found dead on a beach at Esquimalt on 4 June 1893, but conflicts with the Kermode (1904) record cited above (and also cited by Campbell et al. 1990). The Short-tailed Albatross then “completely disappeared from the British Columbia coast” (McAllister 1980), and was not recorded again until the late 1950s (Lane 1962, review in Campbell et al. 1990). These sightings, summarized in Table 1, were mostly of single birds, and were “often immatures” (Campbell et al. 1990). The records of Lane (1962) and those reviewed in Campbell et al. (1990) (Table 1) occurred concurrently with ‘renewed’ sightings from Oregon, Alaska and other areas of the Northern Pacific (Wyatt 1963, Tramontano 1970, Wahl 1970). 


Table 1: Records of the Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus in Canada from the late 1800s - 2003
Date of recordLocationSexAge classReference/Observer
Late 1800’s“tolerably common on both coasts of Vancouver Is.”  Kermode 1904
April 1894“quite common in the Pacific Ocean, near Cape Beale”  Kermode 1904
1889Juan de Fuca Strait, off Victoria – two specimens collectedmale
Campbell et al. 1990
4 June 1893Esquimalt beach – dead  Campbell et al. 1990
“From 1958 to 1981 single birds, often immatures, were reported on at least 10 occasions: May 1963; June 1964; August 1972 and 1976; September 1958 and 1974; and October 1969”. No further details are noted for these recordsCampbell et al. 1990
11 June 196064 km west of Vancouver Island immatureLane 1962
24 June 1971Ocean Station Papa* immatureGruchy et al. 1972
30 July 1991*47°48’ N 133°35’ W immatureK. Morgan
23 Feb 199648°41’ N 126°41’ W juvenileJ. Anderson
22 Oct 199653°53’ N 133°32’ W subadultR. Cameron (IPHC)
19 Jan 199954°09’ N 133°37’ W juvenileR. Lattorra (IPHC)
8 May 199950°45’ N 129°20’ W adultM. Bentley
25 July 199952°10’ N 130°19’ W juvenileJ. Lellicut (IPHC)
2 July 200050°44’ N 129°24’ W immatureM. Bentley
8 Sep 200049°02’ N 131°39’ W immatureM. Bentley
2 Sep 200152°21’ N 130°45’ W immatureIPHC
15 Oct 200249°30’ N 127°15’ W immatureJ. Anderson
8 Aug 200348°18’ N 126°04’ W immatureJ. Anderson

* sightings outside the EEZ
IPHC indicates records obtained from the International Pacific Halibut Commission from 1996.

Since 1991 periodic sightings, and corresponding locations, have been recorded during at-sea surveys off the coast of British Columbia and by fisheries observers with the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC) (Table 1, Fig. 3). These records suggest a tendency for Short-tailed Albatrosses to occur along, and inshore of the shelf break in British Columbia (Fig. 3). Of 15 confirmed sightings within the EEZ since 1991, 13 were of juvenile or sub-adult birds, and two were of adults (Table 1). Most of the at-sea surveys are conducted from aboard ships-of-opportunity (K. Morgan pers. comm. 2003), so the survey effort has been inconsistent from year to year on a spatial and temporal scale. As a result, it is difficult to delineate the exact range and the relative abundance of the species off the BC coast. In those marine areas where the species has not been recorded, as well as for areas that have not been surveyed, it is not possible to definitely say that the areas are not used by Short-tailed Albatross. Thus the area of occupancy (AO) for the Short-tailed Albatross is equivalent to the extent of occurrence (EO): 423 260 km2  from the boundary of Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Pacific to the BC coast, including areas of the species’ historic range (Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Sound, Juan de Fuca Strait and coastal inlets).

Figure 3: Canadian Sightings of the Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus Since 1991

Figure 3: Canadian sightings of the Short-tailed Albatross Phoebastria albatrus since 1991. Dotted line indicates boundary of the EEZ. Light blue, grey and green shading indicates the continental shelf (200 m isobath) and slope areas.

Dotted line indicates boundary of the EEZ. Light blue, grey and green shading indicates the continental shelf (200 m isobath) and slope areas.

It is estimated that approximately 390 Short-tailed Albatross use the defined area off BC from at least January to October (the survey period) each year (CWS unpubl. data 2003). This estimate was derived by calculating the average density of Short-tailed Albatross within surveyed areas across years (number of sightings from at-sea surveys/km2 of survey area) and extrapolating the density estimate to the entire Extent of Occurrence for the species.