Until recently scientists recognised 14 different species of albatrosses, but new research using DNA technology has confirmed as many as 24.
Fourteen varieties breed in the New Zealand region – more than anywhere else in the world. Several are extremely rare, like the Chatham Islands mollymawk which breeds only on one tiny island in the Chathams.
New Zealand's albatrosses include two species of royal albatross, the largest of all the albatrosses.
Royal albatross / toroa
Southern royal albatross pair
Wandering albatross adult feeding
juvenile, Antipodes Islands
Northern royal albatross chick, Taiaroa Head, Otago Peninsula
Albatrosses spend most of their lives at sea, returning to land (usually remote islands) to breed and raise their young. Their naturally low productivity, combined with changes in climate and habitat conditions and certain fishing practices, makes these seabirds vulnerable.
Wandering albatross caught by
Japanese tuna longliner
Albatrosses feed by searching the sea surface for dead squid and fish. Many albatrosses have learnt that fishing vessels offer an easy food source and follow them, feeding on fish bait and scraps. Usually they take the bait without coming to any harm, but occasionally they get caught on a hook and are taken down with the line and drown.
While most fishing boats catch very small numbers of albatrosses, scientists are concerned that because many hundreds of fishing boats are setting lines around the world the total numbers caught may be having an impact on some populations.
Fishermen do not want to catch seabirds, and in New Zealand money collected as a levy from the fishing industry is being used to develop new ways of preventing them from getting caught.
An international commission set up under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is planning to publish a guidebook to albatrosses and petrels in several languages to help fishing crews correctly identify birds associated with their fishing operations.
Drift nets have taken a huge toll on seabirds. In 1990, it was estimated that a million seabirds were drowned in drift nets each year. A convention prohibiting fishing with long drift nets in the South Pacific was signed in New Zealand in 1989 and entered into force in 1991. This paved the way for a United Nations resolution in 1991 calling for a global moratorium on long drift nets on the high seas.
Oil spills and rubbish dumped at sea are hazards for seabirds. Thousands of seabirds die in the northern hemisphere each year from swallowing small pieces of plastic. Although it is thought to be less of a problem in New Zealand, regurgitated plastics are often found beside royal albatross nests on Campbell Island.
DOC worker unbanding a Southern
royal albatross, Auckland Islands
Check out the latest stories about albatross and DOC's work with these birds.
DOC is responsible for the care and management of New Zealand's albatrosses and is working closely with the fishing industry and with international researchers to tackle the threats facing these ocean wanderers.
DOC initiatives include Southern Seabird Solutions. This is a trust which promotes better fishing practises that do not catch seabirds.
A combination of regulation and innovative techniques such as bird-scaring lines, weighted lines, underwater bait-setting devices and retention of offal can reduce the by-catch of albatrosses.
Recovery plan for albatrosses in the Chatham Islands, 2001-2011 (PDF, 195K)
Satellite transmitter packages developed by French, British and Australian researchers are being used at various locations around New Zealand to track the birds' flight paths. Signals from tiny transmitters attached to the birds are monitored by satellite. The information gained will help scientists learn more about the birds while at sea, so they can determine the areas and times of greatest risk to them.
Care of breeding sites
A key role for DOC is looking after the birds' breeding sites. Entry to the island sanctuaries where they breed is strictly controlled. The establishment of the Richdale Observatory at Taiaroa Head has helped protect the mainland population of royal albatrosses.
You can help
Newly hatched Southern royal albatross chick, Campbell Island
Encourage friendly fishing practices
Certain fishing practices, such as longline fishing, trawling and drift netting, are a major threat to many seabird species.
You can help by writing a letter to authorities around the world encouraging them to change unfriendly fishing practices in order to help these birds.
Learn about safe fishing practices on the Southern Seabird website
Report a sick or dead albatross
If you find sick or injured albatrosses on beaches, make sure they are not being harassed by people or dogs, and contact the 24 hr conservation emergency hotline 0800 DOC HOT (0800 362 468).
If dead birds are found on beaches check their legs for metal leg bands and send the band number and location information to DOC's National Banding Office.