Endangered Species

Don’t Chum the Albatross!

Guidelines for Ethical Wildlife Viewing

a juvenile albatross sitting on the water
a juvenile albatross sitting on the water
A young short-tailed albatross that has been spotted along the California coast. 📷 Brad R. Lewis

We need your help

We are asking members of the birding community to be ambassadors for ethical wildlife viewing.

We’ve received reports of illegal chumming and baiting of a critically endangered short-tailed albatross along the central California coast. Feeding or getting too close to this imperiled bird may cause undue stress, lead to habituation, and reduce its chances of being able to survive in the wild. While we’re excited to see this remarkable bird paying a visit to California waters, short-tailed albatross are a federally protected species under the Endangered Species Act, and any form of harassment or disturbance is a violation of federal law.

“As the short-tailed albatross population continues to increase, birds will occur more often on the fringes of their range. This is a good opportunity for folks in California and other areas to observe these birds, but we have to do it respectfully, with low impact .”— Jennifer Spegon, Short-tailed Albatross Recovery Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

We’re working with our partners at California Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, United States Geological Survey, International Bird Rescue, and law enforcement to closely monitor the bird’s status. Species experts and managers agree that the best thing the public can do for this bird is to give it plenty of space to be a wild, young albatross.

According to species experts, short-tailed albatrosses are high strung, sensitive birds that are not well acclimated to humans. Because they are heavy-bodied seabirds, it is energetically taxing for them to run along the water to move away, or to lift off the water into flight. That’s why it’s important for humans to maintain their distance and avoid disturbing the bird in its natural habitat.

an albatross chick flapping next to a gull
an albatross chick flapping next to a gull
Size comparison of the young albatross next to a gull. 📷 Brad R. Lewis

For the bird’s safety, please:

  • If you see the albatross on the water, veer vessel to avoid it, and give it wide berth.
  • Maintain a distance of 100 meters (a bit longer than the length of one football field).
  • Do not pursue, intentionally approach, or try to flush the bird for any reason.
  • Do not chum or bait the bird to attract it, or otherwise feed it. Improper diet can negatively affect the bird’s health. Fish oil in particular as an attractant may foul the bird’s feathers, causing the feathers to lose their ability to keep the bird dry and warm, and make it difficult for the bird to fly.
  • Ensure your fishing gear also remains 100 meters from the bird.

Short-tailed albatrosses are protected by law

In addition to protecting the bird, these recommendations also protect the public from violating federal laws including the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Short-tailed albatross are protected by law, and it is illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect this bird, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct. Under the ESA, harassment means an intentional or negligent act or omission, which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.

an adult albatross sitting on vegetation
an adult albatross sitting on vegetation
An adult short-tailed albatross. 📷 USFWS/Tamara Zeller

We’re counting on the birding, fishing, maritime, and coastal communities to share and follow the guidelines above and help give this bird the best chance for survival.

If it is determined that the bird cannot survive in the wild, capture for rehabilitation would be considered as a last resort. There is high risk of injury during capture, and this species may not fare well in captivity due to its high-strung nature. Therefore, capture is not the preferred option at this time. A team of experts will be meeting weekly to discuss updates and re-evaluate the bird’s condition and course of action.

an albatross chick flapping its wings
An albatross chick treading water
📷 Brad R. Lewis

Thank you for your help to keep this truly special endangered seabird safe in the wild where it belongs.

About short-tailed albatross

The short-tailed albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act on July 31, 2000. They were thought to be hunted to near extinction at the beginning of the 20th century for their feathers and other body parts. By 1951 there were just 10 short-tailed albatross observed on Torishima Island, Japan. Since then, with stringent protections, the population has grown to an estimated 7,365 individuals (USFWS 2020).

Short-tailed albatross spend the majority of their lives in the marine environment, soaring gracefully over the water as they feed along the surface on small prey such as squid. They come on land only to breed on remote, uninhabited islands, with most of the population breeding on Torishima Island, Japan. They travel great distances throughout the North Pacific Ocean, from the western Pacific to Hawaii, Russia, Alaska, and Canada and along U.S. coastal waters all the way to Baja California, Mexico. They concentrate at sea in areas of upwelling, including along the continental divide and shelf breaks near Japan, the Aleutian Islands, and in the Bering Sea. However, with a wingspan over 2 meters (wider than most adults are tall), these birds are built to wander. Young short-tailed albatross travel greater distances than adults.

In last few decades, only a handful of short-tailed albatross have been recorded along the California coast. Having an opportunity to see a short-tailed albatross near the coast is exciting. These birds are better known in the offshore, and California is the southern edge of their range. Unfortunately, being in close proximity to human population centers poses some risk to the bird, including disturbance and stress from many enthusiastic would-be observers, potential for entanglement with fishing line, and eating hand-outs, a diet that could put the bird’s health at risk.

Rising to the Occasion

The presence of this short-tailed albatross presents special opportunities, but also demands special care.

“We’re all excited about this amazing bird and the enthusiasm it is generating. That makes it doubly important that we be outstanding ambassadors for birding and take extra care to ensure that those of us lucky enough to see it leave it exactly as we found it, for its own sake and for the enjoyment of others.” — Jeffrey Gordon, American Birding Association President

We ask that members of the public practice and be ambassadors for respectful, enjoyable, and thoughtful birding and wildlife viewing (for ideas, see the American Birding Association’s code of ethics).

Read more:

Albatross: Lifetime at Sea

Written in collaboration by Ashley McConnell, Katrina Liebich, Megan Boldenow, and Jennifer Spegon, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Alaska & California).

We’re dedicated to the conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife and plants, and their habitats.