Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Status Assessment of Laysan and Black-Footed Albatrosses, North Pacific Ocean, 1923-2005

July 7, 2009

Over the past century, Laysan (Phoebastria immutabilis) and black-footed (Phoebastria nigripes) albatrosses have been subjected to high rates of mortality and disturbance at the breeding colonies and at sea. Populations were greatly reduced and many colonies were extirpated around the turn of the 20th century as a result of feather hunting. Populations were recovering when military occupation of several breeding islands during World War II led to new population declines at these islands and additional colony extirpations. At sea, thousands of Laysan and black-footed albatrosses were killed each year in high-seas driftnet fisheries, especially from 1978 until the fisheries were banned in 1992. Through the 1990s, there was a growing awareness of the large numbers of albatrosses that were being killed in longline fisheries. During the 1990s, other anthropogenic factors, such as predation by non-native mammals and exposure to contaminants, also were documented to reduce productivity or increase mortality.

In response to the growing concerns over the impacts of these threats on albatross populations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contracted with the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct an assessment of Laysan and black-footed albatross populations. This assessment includes a review of the taxonomy, legal status, geographic distribution, natural history, habitat requirements, threats, and monitoring and management activities for these two species. The second part of the assessment is an analysis of population status and trends from 1923 to 2005.

Laysan and black-footed albatrosses forage throughout the North Pacific Ocean and nest on tropical and sub-tropical oceanic islands from Mexico to Japan. As of 2005, 21 islands support breeding colonies of one or both species. The core breeding range is the Hawaiian Islands, where greater than 99 percent of the World's Laysan albatrosses and greater than 95 percent of the black-footed albatrosses nest on the small islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. These islands are all protected as part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

Albatrosses are long-lived seabirds with deferred maturity, low fecundity, and high rates of adult survival. Their life history characteristics make populations especially vulnerable, to small increases in adult mortality. The primary threats to Laysan and black-footed albatrosses include interactions with commercial fisheries, predation by introduced mammals, reduced reproductive output due to contaminants, nesting habitat loss and degradation due to human development and invasive plant species, and potential loss and degradation of habitat due to climate change and sea-level rise. Incidental mortality (bycatch) in commercial fisheries is the greatest anthropogenic source of mortality (post-fledging) for both species. We found that longline fishing effort prior to the 1980s was greater than previously estimated and a very significant source of mortality.

Regulations to minimize and monitor albatross mortality have been enacted in most U.S. and Canadian longline fisheries, but monitoring of bycatch rates and regulations to minimize seabird mortality are extremely limited in the much larger multinational longline fleets. Management to address threats at the breeding colonies is ongoing and includes eradication or control of non-native species, habitat management, and abatement programs to reduce impacts of contaminants. Effective long-term conservation and management of the Laysan and black-footed albatrosses require management and monitoring at the breeding colonies and at sea and continued assessment of population status and trends.

We evaluated the status and trends of Laysan and black-footed albatross populations using linear regression, population viability analysis (PVA), and age-structured matrix models. Analyses were predominantly based on nest-count data gathered at French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, and Midw

Publication Year 2009
Title Status Assessment of Laysan and Black-Footed Albatrosses, North Pacific Ocean, 1923-2005
DOI 10.3133/sir20095131
Authors Javier A. Arata, Paul R. Sievert, Maura B. Naughton
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2009-5131
Index ID sir20095131
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization U.S. Geological Survey