Laysan albatross has only two main nesting sites
ON THE FACE things, the Laysan albatross is doing quite well. Its population is estimated at around 1.6 m, and may be growing. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Classifies him as “near threatened”, placing him at the bottom rung of the seven-rung organization ladder to extinction. A cause for moderate concern. But not, you think, something that should be high on environmentalists’ priority lists. However, like another reasonably abundant migratory species, the monarch butterfly, the Laysan albatross has an Achilles heel.
Although monarchs roam much of North America, many are or are the descendants of insects that wintered in the same few groves of trees in central Mexico. Destroy those trees and you would endanger the species. Laysan’s albatross has a similar vulnerability. Adult birds cross much of the Pacific Ocean. But more than 90% of them started their lives on one of two plots of land, Midway and the eponymous Laysan, which are among the most northwestern members of the Hawaiian archipelago. Eliminate these breeding colonies and the Laysan albatross would shoot into the IUCN ladder.
And this is exactly what some birders fear, as Midway and Laysan, which are among the oldest parts of the Hawaiian Range, have over time eroded from their original splendor of mountainous volcanic islands to their current state of d coral atolls protruding a few meters above sea level. A storm surge in 2011 destroyed hundreds of thousands of nests, and even in normal years, thousands are lost. Rising sea levels can make the situation worse. It is therefore time to spread the risk of the species by establishing Laysan albatross colonies elsewhere.
A project to do this began in 2015 when the United States Navy, its Fish and Wildlife Service (a government agency), and several private conservation organizations led by a group called Pacific Rim Conservation began working together to move albatross eggs from Another member of the archipelago, Kauai, which is home to a small colony of birds, in Oahu, Hawaii’s capital, Honolulu. Here, after incubation and hatching, they are transferred to a wildlife refuge ten meters above sea level, and hand-fed squid and fish for five months until they take off and leave the island.
While there, they are exposed to fiberglass decoys and solar-powered megaphones that broadcast albatross calls. The hope is that these tips will encourage the chicks to imprint on the area and come and breed there as adults. As the young Laysans spend three to five years at sea before returning for the first time to their homeland, it took a while to find out if this was working. But the auspices look reasonably good. Of the 46 Laysans successfully bred and fledged during the 2015, 2016 and 2017 breeding seasons, seven have so far returned. And, as an added bonus, the decoy birds and calls have also attracted hundreds of adult Laysan albatross visitors, including four pairs that have started to nest.
There are caveats. The transfer of eggs from Kauai was proof of principle rather than a true conservation effort. Kauai is not an atoll, and the nests in question were chosen because they were too close for the comfort of a Navy airfield there. More seriously, there is the question of the protection of albatrosses if they settle on Oahu. The likely reason why so many birds now nest on Midway and Laysan rather than larger islands is the lack of predators. Small rodents, introduced by human visitors, were a problem in both places (although they were eliminated from Laysan). Oahu, however, is teeming with not only these, but also large imported predators. The albatross sanctuary is therefore surrounded by a two-meter-high fence that keeps cats, dogs and pigs away, and which is also dug into the ground to prevent rodents from burying themselves there. The 6.5 hectares of land thus fortified could accommodate tens of thousands of pairs of nesting birds. As Jared Underwood of the Fish and Wildlife Service says, “We just let them come back. But this authorization depends on the maintenance of the fortifications.
Nothing scared, however, the project partners are now expanding. They have developed a habit of welcoming the black-footed albatross, a related species with similar habits, to Oahu as well. These were transferred from Midway and another atoll, Tern Island. And the partners are also trying to establish settlements far from the Hawaiian Islands, on the Channel Islands off California and in Guadalupe, off Mexico. If things go well, the Laysan Albatross Conservation Project may prove to be a rare example of the stable door being closed before the horse has run away. ■
This article appeared in the Science & Technology section of the print edition under the headline “Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket”