Justification of Red List Category
This species has rebounded from declines in the late 1990s and early 2000s, perhaps because apparent changes in the breeding populations reflected large scale environmental conditions that affected the number of birds that returned to the colonies to nest rather than actual declines in the population. Given the difficulty of predicting long-term trends for such a long-lived species, and the number of documented threats and the uncertainty over their future effects, the species is precautionarily projected to undergo a moderately rapid population decline over three generations (84 years), and as such qualifies as Near Threatened (nearly qualifies for listing as threatened under criterion A4bd).
The population is estimated to be more than c. 800,000 breeding pairs, equivalent to c.1,600,000 mature individuals (Arata et al. 2009). Midway Atoll, Laysan Island and French Frigate Shoals support 90% of the global breeding population.
Population sizes at monitored colonies increased between 1980 and 1995 but have never reached the densities observed prior to large-scale harvests for feathers in the early 1900s. Data indicate a 32% decline during 1992-2002 (3.2% per annum) in populations on Midway Atoll, Laysan Island and French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where 90% of the global population is found (Gilman and Freifeld 2003, USFWS data per B. Flint 2003). However, data from 2004 and 2005 indicate that the breeding population then rebounded, and that the overall population trend for 1992-2005 is stable, perhaps because these changes in the breeding populations were reflective of large scale environmental conditions that affected the number of birds that returned to the colonies to nest rather than actual declines in the population (Naughton et al. 2007). A population began nesting in Mexico in the 1980s and has been increasing since then. The current population is about 400 pairs at four sites, although this represents less than 0.1% of the global population (Naughton et al. 2007). Considering such data, and the difficulty of of predicting long-term trends for such a long-lived species, a decline of 20-29% over the period 1992-2078 is precautionarily estimated given the number of documented threats and the uncertainty over their future effects.
Phoebastria immutabilis breeds at 16 sites (nine with populations of greater than 100 pairs), mostly in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (U.S.A.) and U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, with additional small colonies in Japan and Mexico. The population is estimated to be more than c. 800,000 breeding pairs, with the largest colony at Midway Atoll (666,044 pairs, https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_1/NWRS/Zone_1/Midway_Atoll/Documents/Hatch%20Year%202015%20NR_FINAL(4).pdf), followed by Laysan Island, both in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (Arata et al. 2009). Population sizes at monitored colonies increased between 1980 and 1995 but have never reached the densities observed prior to large-scale harvests for feathers in the early 1900s. Data indicated a 32% decline during 1992-2002 (3.2% per annum) of birds breeding on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where 99% of the global population is found (Gilman and Freifeld 2003, USFWS data per B. Flint 2003 pers comm.), though data from 2004 and 2006 indicate that the breeding population then rebounded, and that the overall population trend for 1992-2005 is stable (Naughton et al. 2007). On Oahu, Hawaii the small population has increased 27% annually since 1991, and numbered 555 adults in 2015, due primarily to immigration with some local recruitment (Young et al. 2009a, VanderWerf and Young 2016). The island of Kauai contain ~1,000 birds scattered amongst more than a dozen sites with an increasing trend comparable to Oahu (Young et al. 2014). A population began nesting in Mexico in the 1980s and has been increasing since then. The current population is about 400 pairs at four sites (46 pairs on Clarion Island in 2002; Wanless et al. 2009), though this represents less than 0.1% of the global population (Arata et al. 2009). Breeding populations were extirpated from Wake and Johnston atolls (U.S.A.) and Minami Torishima (Japan) in the central Pacific. Ship-based observations, satellite tracking and fisheries bycatch reveal the wide distribution of Phoebastria immutabilis in the North Pacific, ranging from the northern Bering Sea to tropical waters in the South (10-15 degrees North) (Fisher and Fisher 1972, Fernandez et al. 2001, Hyrenbach et al. 2002, Shaffer et al. 2004).
Laysan Albatross is an annual breeder though, like other albatross species, each year a proportion of birds will skip a breeding season. Nests vary from a simple scoop in the sand to more elaborate nests where vegetation allows. Wisdom, a Phoebastria immutabilis female estimated to be 65 years old is still breeding (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Midway_Atoll/wildlife_and_habitat/Wisdom_Profile.html). High rates of mate change (14%), super-normal clutches as a result of same-sex pairing (31% of pairs), observed on Oahu and Kauai, Hawaii are all previously unreported for the species (Young et al. 2008, 2009a Young and VanderWerf 2014). The high rates of same-sex pairing is thought to result from a slightly skewed sex ratio (57% female) (Young et al. 2008). Diet analysis indicates that it feeds primarily on cephalopods (Pittman et al. 2004), though also on a variety of fish, crustaceans and other invertebrates (Tickell 2000). Satellite tracking has revealed the large journeys made even while breeding (Fernandez et al. 2001, Naughton et al. 2007, S. Shaffer in litt. 2007). Breeding birds at Tern Island switch from a local unimodal foraging strategy during brooding, to a bimodal foraging strategy incorporating more distant, highly productive subarctic waters during the rearing period and responding to climatic variability readily (Hyrenbach et al. 2002, Kappes et al. 2010, Thorne et al. 2015). Reproductive success has been linked to foraging location, with pairs fledging chicks two years in a row not foraging near continental shelves (Edwards and Parrish 2008). Recent data has demonstrated that reproductive success is linked to the distance of the breeding grounds from the transition zone (closer resulting in higher reproductive success) and prevailing wind conditions in any given year (Thorne et al. 2015, 2016). It is thought that this ability may be influenced by information gathered during the non-breeding season (Edwards and Parrish 2008).
Populations were greatly reduced by feather and egg collecting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and by high seas drift nets for squid and salmon that were active between 1978 and 1992. Prior to its closure, the high seas driftnet fishery killed over 17,500 Laysan Albatross in 1990 alone (Johnson et al. 1993). Current key threats include incidental capture in pelagic (Crowder and Myers 2002) and demersal longline fisheries (Stehn et al. 2001) in the North Pacific as well as in illegal high seas driftnet operations. Analyses in 2001 estimated that pelagic longliners in the North Pacific may kill 5,000-18,000 Phoebastria immutabilis per year, with 8,000 thought the most likely figure, while demersal longline operations in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries were estimated to kill c.715 birds per year (Crowder and Myers 2001). It has been recently estimated that on average, 156 Phoebastria immutabilis are taken annually in the Alaskan federal groundfish and Pacific Halibut Hippoglossus stenolepis fisheries, (in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, and the Gulf of Alaska Fishery Management Plan areas), targeting Pacific Cod Gadus macrocephalus, Sablefish Anoplopoma fimbria, and Halibut Hippoglossus spp.. Off Canada’s west coast, the estimated annual bycatch mortality of albatrosses (primarily Black-footed Albatross) averages 85 birds per year (range 25-128) (COSEWIC 2013, K. Morgan, unpublished data, 2016). The bycatch rates in Japanese and Taiwanese pelagic longline fisheries in the North Pacific are still largely unknown.
Climate change poses an ongoing threat in terms of storms and flooding, and a future threat in terms of habitat alteration from sea-level rise. A majority of the population nests on low-lying islands and atolls and it is predicted that with climate change and the resulting rise in sea-level, there will be significant inundation and loss nesting habitat (Storlazzi et al. 2013, Reynolds et al. 2015).
Other threats include pollution from oil spills, organochlorine, lead and plastic ingestion, as well as invasive species, human disturbance and conflicts with aircrafts (Harrison 1990, Ludwig et al. 1998, Finkelstein et al. 2003, Finkelstein 2006, Young et al. 2014). Chicks with large volumes of proventricular plastic have been reported to have fledging weights significantly lower than chicks with low amounts of plastic, and there is some evidence to suggest it may have affected survival rates in 1986, when the volume of plastic ingestion was at its highest (Sievert and Sileo 2008). Up to 10,000 chicks per year are potentially affected by lead poisoning from paint on buildings at Midway Atoll (Finkelstein 2006), and 7% of chicks on Sand Island fail to fledge from lead poisoning each year, with a predicted impact of 16% reduction in population size over the course of 50 years equating to 190,000 fewer birds (Finkelstein et al. 2010).Avian pox virus affects chicks on Midway and the Main Hawaiian Islands where introduced mosquitoes are present, but the associated declines are negligible (VanderWerf and Young 2016). Invasive predators also pose a threat. Dogs Canis lupus familiaris kill adults and chicks on inhabited islands in Hawaii. Observations from Guadalupe Island, Mexico, in December 2002 recorded that, of the 490 adults on the island, 35 were killed by feral cats Felis catus (7% of the total island breeding population that year, and 30% of the Punta Sur colony) (Keitt et al. 2006). Cats were also responsible for a tripling in nest failure rate at this colony (49%) compared with the nearby cat free Negro Islet colony (13%) (Keitt et al. 2006). Cat control around the colony from Jan-Mar 2003 removed 18 cats and curtailed adult mortality from cat predation, although cats continued to be seen around the colony after the breeding season ended (Keitt et al. 2006). It is likely that the population here had not experienced high levels of predation prior to 2002, as otherwise it would have been extirpated. Other introduced predators (notably the Polynesian rat Rattus exulans; Jones et al. 2008) may pose a minor threat to colonies in Mexico and on the Main Hawaiian Islands. Rats have been recorded killing adults on rare occasions, but this mortality is minimal and hence not believed to be driving significant declines. House mice Mus musculus on Sand Island began attacking adult Laysan Albatross in 2015, with the behaviour spreading rapidly in the following breeding season. An eradication is planned and trapping around the colony has minimised chick losses. In 2002, observations on Clarion Island, Mexico, reported zero breeding success from the 46 nesting pairs, largely as a result of predation by several endemic species (e.g. Clarion Raven Corvus corax clarionensis and Clarion Racer Masticophis anthonyi; Wanless et al. 2009).
Conservation Actions Underway
All of the major Hawaiian breeding localities are part of the US National Wildlife Refuge system or State of Hawaii Seabird Sanctuaries and, in 2006, the Papahânaumokuâkea Marine National Monument was established, encompassing all of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Originally, Papahānaumokuākea protected an area of 362,073 km2; in August 2016, the National Marine Monument was expanded to 1,508,870 km2. Three breeding sites, supporting over 90% of the breeding population, are either counted directly or sampled at regular intervals. In 1991, a 50 Nautical Mile Protected Species Zone was established around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (primarily to protect monk seals). No longline fishing is allowed in this zone. In 2001 and 2007, respectively, USA and Canada released National Plans of Action to reduce the bycatch of seabirds in longline fisheries (NMFS 2001, DFO 2007). In 2002, the use of tori (streamer) lines became a mandatory condition of licence in commercial halibut, sablefish, and rockfish Sebastes spp. longline fisheries on Canada’s west coast (DFO 2007). Awareness programmes and mitigation trials have been started in several major longline fleets operating within the foraging range of this species; for example, the Hawaiian longline fishing fleet is required to use measures to reduce bycatch of seabirds. In 2006, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission adopted a measure to require large longline vessels to use at least two seabird bycatch mitigation measures when fishing north of 23 degrees North. Predator control programs are conducted at colonies in Mexico and the main Hawaiian Islands (Young et al. 2013).
Conservation Actions Proposed
Continue monitoring population trends and demographic parameters. Continue satellite-tracking studies to assess temporal and spatial overlap with longline fisheries. Adopt best-practice mitigation measures in longline fisheries within the species's range. Continue and enhance awareness programmes in all longline fleets. Re-evaluate the location of the current boundary (23o N) for required use of seabird mitigation measures in the U.S. pelagic longline fisheries (Naughton et al. 2007). Continue and enhance control/eradication programs for Verbesina in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and introduced predators in Hawaii and Mexico. Continue and enhance lead-based paint removal from sites (e.g. USFWS 2005-2008 efforts to remove paint from about 14 out of 95 structures with lead-based paint on Sand Island; Finkelstein et al. 2010).
81 cm. Small two-tone, gull-like albatross. Upperwings, mantle, back, upper rump and tail blackish-grey. Head, lower rump and underparts white. Blackish smudge around eye. Bill pinkish with darker tip. Black-and-white underwing pattern varies between individuals having narrow black margins and variable amounts of black in the underwing coverts. Juveniles very similar but for greyer bill and wholly dark upper rump. Similar spp. Easily separated from the wholly dark Black-footed Albatross P. nigripes. Adult Short-tailed Albatross P. albatrus has a white back.
Text account compilers
Small, C., Stuart, A., Sullivan, B., Symes, A., Taylor, J., Calvert, R., Butchart, S., Fjagesund, T., Hermes, C., Martin, R., Anderson, O., Moreno, R., Nel, D.
Flint, B., Morgan, K., Lewison, R., Mitchell, L., Gilman, E., Nisbet, I., Rivera, K., Young, L., Shaffer, S.
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Phoebastria immutabilis. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 03/02/2023. Recommended citation for factsheets for more than one species: BirdLife International (2023) IUCN Red List for birds. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 03/02/2023.