Seeking Fish, Patrolling Albatrosses Join the Cops

In an innovative experiment to help find commercial fishing vessels poaching in restricted waters, scientists have attached tiny radar detectors to high-soaring albatrosses, renowned flyers known for their attraction to ships at sea. Patrolling albatrosses revealed that about a third of ships in the Southern Indian Ocean were seeking to avoid detection.

A wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans) on the move. One of the “great albatross” species, it sports the largest wingspan of any known living bird.

TWO IMMUTABLE FACTS: 1) IF THERE’S FOOD AROUND, ANIMALS WILL SHOW UP FOR AN EASY MEAL. 2) There are always going to be commercial fishing vessels that sneak into illegal fishing grounds for an easy harvest they’re not supposed to take.

A new fact: In the battle to stop illegal fish harvests, patrolling albatrosses are on the job.

At least, in an innovative experiment, they’ve proven they’re up to the challenge. Enlisted in the effort to locate ships poaching in illegal waters, they’re using wearable technology to report when and where they find them.

Well, actually the scientists behind the project are relying on the technology – tiny electronic devices that report a ship’s radar use – and the albatrosses’ natural instincts.


International Maritime Organization regulations call for vessels at sea to broadcast their identity, location, course and other data via transponder devices called Automatic Identification Systems (AIS). Most do. But a ship that wants to disappear, potentially due to illegal fishing or trafficking activities, can turn it off. And/or, they may just want to keep their competitors from knowing where they’ve found bountiful waters.

Still, most keep localized radar systems in operation to avoid collisions and close calls. Radar-detector-equipped albatrosses that home in on vessels for their own purposes – finding schools of fish, and, presumably, bycatch and wastage – happily report their data back.


The project focused on bird colonies on the Crozet Islands, French islands in the Southern Indian Ocean south of Madagascar. The research team attached two-ounce logging devices to 169 adult and juvenile birds (which proved compliant to handling). The solar-powered gizmos were equipped with GPS antennas, radar detectors and antennas for relaying data via a system of satellites.

For some six months, the researchers monitored their movements over the ocean as they foraged at sea for as much as two weeks at a time, covering thousands of miles. Among their targets were vessels seeking the tuna and Patagonian toothfish (“Chilean sea bass” on restaurant menus) that school near the islands.

A southern royal albatross (Diomedea epomophora), photographed close up in Tasmania. Southern royals feature probably the second-largest wingspans among living birds.


The patrolling albatrosses recorded radar signals from 353 vessels. The researchers were able to correlate the data with AIS signals, determining that 100 of the ships – some 28 percent – had their AIS turned off. In international waters, the percentage was 37 percent.

Flying high, patrolling albatrosses can spot ships from as far away and 10 miles/30 kilometers. In all, nearly 80 percent of the birds encountered vessels. Effectiveness varied among species of albatross.

Patrolling-albatross surveillance can be important in helping authorities pinpoint the locations of suspicious vessels and improve enforcement of fishing restrictions, the researchers say. They hope to expand their research to Hawaiian, New Zealand and sub-Antarctic waters in the future. And to further shrink their bird-borne radar detecting devices.


For  most of us, our first awareness of albatrosses probably comes in high school literature classes that include Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Historically, albatrosses have been renowned for following ships at sea, hoping to profit from schools of fishes that might be found with the ships. Traditionally, these feathered friends have been considered good luck.

In the mini-epic Rime, the aforementioned Ancient Mariner shoots one such albatross with his crossbow, resulting a massive curse descending on him, the crew and the ship. It doesn’t end well for the crew. But for the Ancient, the albatross drops from his neck at the moment he is moved to bless all the otherworldly creatures of the sea.

As a consequence, the otherwise admirable albatross has been too-often relegated in the public mind to a metaphor for a burden or curse, like the deadweight lab partner you were stuck with in high school biology.

wandering albatrosses
A pair of wandering albatrosses during a courtship ritual on South Georgia Island, in the far South Atlantic. Albatrosses typically mate for life. 


  • Albatrosses’ prey of preference include fish, squid and krill, but like most marine animals and an easy meal is a welcome opportunity. Hence, an attraction to fishing vessels. Especially, perhaps, messy ones.
  • Taxonomically, albatrosses are in the Family Diomedeidae, but it’s not certain how many species there are. The ICUN recognizes 22, a number of which is lists as endangered, near threatened or vulnerable.
  • They’re among the largest flying birds, and great albatrosses (Genus Diomedea) have wingspans of as much as 12 ft/3.7 m.
  • Albatrosses are renowned long-distance and long-term flyers. They spend most of their lives in the air, returning to land only to mate, hatch chicks and give them a start in life.
  • One grey-headed albatross has been documented as having flown some 13,700 miles, circling the planet in the Southern Hemisphere in 46 days.
  • They mate for life, and when they return to life in the skies above the oceans, they’re accompanied by their newly flying newborns.
  • Albatrosses typically live for as long as 60 years, although they may not link up with a mate until about 10 years of age.
  • The Ancient Mariner’s success with a cross-bow notwithstanding, in real life albatrosses tend to stay far away from the boats themselves and fishing crews that may try to shoot at them are unlikely to be successful.


 Research published in 2013, also using albatross-attached technology, determined that they’re able to soar so well for so long by using a technique of “dynamic soaring.”

A soaring albatross will fly into a stiff headwind to gain altitude, then turn and swoop along for a half mile (100 meters) or so. Utilizing the maneuver repeatedly, they can travel for long distances with minimal expenditure of energy.

Soaring with the wind at their backs is not just a matter of coasting. They can fly as much as three times faster than the windspeed. They also  have an advantage in being able to lock their wings into place when they have them fully extended.


The researchers’ findings, Ocean sentinel albatrosses locate illegal vessels and provide the first estimate of the extent of nondeclared fishing, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in late January. The team involved scientists from the Université La Rochelle’s Centre d’Etudes Biologiques de Chizé in France, the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom and organizations in La Reunion, France (Reunion Island) and New Zealand.

PRINCIPAL SOURCES: Ocean sentinel albatrosses locate illegal vessels and provide the first estimate of the extent of nondeclared fishing, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; Seabird ‘cops’ spy on sneaky fishing vessels, Science; They’re Stealthy at Sea, but They Can’t Hide From the Albatross, New York Times; The albatross: A bird built to soar, Deutsche Welle; How the unflappable albatross can travel 10,000 miles in a single journey, Independent; Albatross,