By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent
The world's largest seabirds, the albatrosses, are soon to benefit
from international protection which may arrest their slide towards
Longlines are pulling albatross numbers down rapidly
South Africa has become the fifth country to ratify the
international treaty on albatross protection, which will now enter into
force in February.
The treaty obliges signatories to act to reduce deaths on fishing lines, which kill 100,000 albatrosses a year.
Conservationists are now urging the UK and other nations to ratify the pact.
The treaty, the Agreement on the Conservation of
Albatrosses and Petrels (Acap) had already been ratified by Australia,
Ecuador, New Zealand and Spain, but it needed a fifth signatory to give
It requires states not only to take specific measures to
reduce seabird deaths from longlining, but to draw up wide-ranging
plans to tackle other threats.
These include habitat loss, marine pollution, and rats, feral cats and other introduced species at the birds' breeding sites.
BirdLife International, an alliance of conservation groups working in more than 100 countries, welcomed the South African move.
It says its research has shown longlining to be the
chief culprit in the continued declines of most albatross species and
The practice is reckoned to kill 300,000 seabirds every year, a third of them albatrosses.
The victims die of their injuries as they try to seize
bait from hooks on fishing lines up to 130 kilometres (80 miles) long,
or else are dragged under water and drown.
There are 21 albatross species, all of which BirdLife says now face varying risks of extinction.
South Africa is home to significant populations of four
species: the wandering, grey-headed, Indian yellow-nosed and sooty
Dr Euan Dunn, of the Royal Society for the Protection
of Birds, BirdLife's UK partner, said: "With many albatrosses sliding
towards extinction, Acap's entry into force comes not a moment too
More nations need to sign up, says BirdLife
"The treaty's strength is that it is legally binding on
signatory states, so they will have to take firm measures to get
seabirds off the hook.
"It is now vital for the UK to ratify in time for the
first meeting of the parties to the agreement in 2004, and to get its
crucially important overseas territories to ratify in time too."
BirdLife wants the UK, France, Brazil, Chile and Peru to ratify the agreement promptly.
British overseas territories with large populations of
some of the most threatened albatrosses include the Falkland Islands,
South Georgia, and Tristan da Cunha.
Amsterdam Island, governed by France, is home to the
most threatened species, the Amsterdam albatross, which is also
threatened by disease.
It is now reduced to about 20 breeding pairs annually, and chick mortality is increasing.
The British sailor John Ridgway, who rowed across the
North Atlantic with Chay Blyth in 1966, recently left South Africa on a
year-long yacht voyage to draw attention to illegal fishing and to
campaign for stricter action against it.
Images by BirdLife International