Alaska Science Center
The Short-tailed Albatross was once the most numerous of the three North Pacific albatrosses. Up until the late nineteenth century there may have been as many as 5 million birds and more than a dozen breeding colonies, mostly on islands around Japan. By the early twentieth century there were only a handful of Short-tailed Albatrosses left in the world. Where did they all go?
In the mid-nineteenth century, the latest fashion craze in Europe and North America involved wearing feathers in womens hats. The Japanese knew about islands off of their coast where millions of seabirds came to nest each year. It was easy to capture and kill the birds because they had no natural fear of humans. Thousands were slaughtered for their feathers.
The feather collectors did not realize at the time that these birds had come from thousands of miles away to nest on these remote islands, and they represented the entire breeding population of this species. Collectors moved from one island to another, eventually killing most adult Short-tailed Albatross in the world.
For many years the Short-tailed Albatross was thought to be extinct. However, juvenile birds remain at sea for up to ten years before nesting. After adults had been extirpated, these juveniles returned to nest on Torishima Island, south of Japan. Today there are about 700 Short-tailed Albatross on Torishima. The island is now protected and the albatross population is slowly increasing.
The Short-tailed Albatross remains an endangered species. Long-line fishing in the North Pacific kills many albatross each year. Mostly the more plentiful Laysan Albatross. Occasionally short-taileds are caught accidentally. With an adult population of just a few hundred birds, every bird is precious. Biologists have been working with long-line fisherman to develop ways to reduce the risk of catching albatross.
Possibly the biggest threat to the species is Torishima Island itself. The island is an active volcano that can erupt at any time, killing birds and destroying their nesting habitat. Biologists hope that as the population grows, new colonies will be established on other islands.
The Short-tailed Albatross is a majestic bird, whose mastery of its ocean world inspires awe and admiration. Short-tailed Albatrosses can still be seen on rare occasion in Alaskan waters, gliding on stiff, lance-like wings where the wind meets the water.