In Memory of a Shy Mollymawk

Even in death it was a beautiful bird. After a week of rain Sophie and I were glad to be out walking on the beach even it meant getting soaked. Zena the wonder dog also enjoyed it immensely. She snuffled the tangled piles of kelp and seaweed heaped on the sand, rusty coloured reminders of the hard wind earlier in the week. As we finished our walk,  I spotted a drowned albatross at the high tide line. Eye still intact, it had not been dead long.

Shy Mollymawk, Osborne Beach.
Shy Mollymawk, Osborne Beach.

Graeme at the Department of Conservation identified it as a Shy Mollymawk and thought it must have had a hard time in the strong winds. These birds are declining in alarming numbers, so DoC will be doing an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

Shy Albatross, Thalassarche cauta, New Zealand. Author: Mark Jobling
Shy Albatross (Mollymawk) in life. Photograph by Mark Jobling, Creative Commons. "I now belong to a higher cult of mortals – for I have seen the albatross." wrote Robert Cushman Murphy an American ornithologist in a letter to his wife in 1912.

Albatross and their Mollymawk cousins are amazing birds. They know how to catch every nuance of the wind and fly gracefully like a glider. Most of their life is spent on open ocean and visits to land are for breeding purposes only.

These days they must share the open ocean with fishing boats. Seabirds, including penguins, get caught and drown when they go for bait on long lines but real numbers of drownings are hard to come by because long term monitoring of bycatch is political and problematic. The word “bycatch” gives no indication of the horror of drowned seabirds, sea turtles, and sea mammals that are caught in fishing nets every day and dumped back into the ocean as waste.

In the past five years, the steep decline of seabird populations all over the world has made some people look for solutions to this part of the puzzle. A new bait cover for long lines that dissolves at depths greater than a seabird can dive will prevent their accidental drowning (although our yellow-eyed penguin dives right to the bottom of the ocean floor).  Read an interview with the inventor Hans Jusett (a former fisherman) and learn about his personal experience of “bycatch” at the abc Radio Australia website.

Now we inventive humans must turn our attention to solutions to climate change, so that ocean currents and the fish that use them will stay close enough to where they have always been. That way our penguins, who are creatures of habit and more tied to the land, will continue to be able to find their food.


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