IMAGE: ALBATROSS
Phil Hansbro  /  BirdLife
Some two dozen juvenile Shy Albatrosses like this one will race to raise money and awareness for protecting their peers from a fishing practice called longlining.
By
msnbc.com
updated 5/4/2004 9:33:56 AM ET 2004-05-04T13:33:56

Eighteen albatrosses have taken off from three Australian islands, the start of a race organized by conservation groups and the world's largest bookmaker to raise money and awareness by taking bets on an unusual proposition: birds of a feather racing together across 6,000 miles of ocean.

"Already we have several runners who have attempted an early rush for the fishing grounds of the Great Australian Bight," read the first online commentary as the albatrosses left on a migratory route that should take them to South Africa's Cape of Good Hope.

The albatross sponsored by Scottish golfer Sam Torrance took an early lead when the starting gate went up at Ladbrokes' "Big Bird Race" Web site.

Ladbrokes offered odds of 10-1 on Torrance’s albatross being first, but it faces challenges from other contenders sponsored by the likes of Texan model Jerry Hall, Australian rugby star David Campese, singer Olivia Newton-John and Jordan’s Queen Noor.

Betting commenced Tuesday, and a spokesman for Ladbrokes said the agency had "already taken a five figure sum so far - so interest has been huge."

The idea behind the race is to save albatross species from extinction at the hands of longlining -- a fishing technique that uses thousands of baited hooks dragged behind trawlers. Conservationists estimate that up to 300,000 seabirds, one third of them albatrosses, die each year when they go after bait as it's placed on longlines, only to get hooked and then drown.

"The situation is as serious as the fate dolphins faced from tuna fishermen in the '80s before public awareness and pressure brought about a change in fishing techniques," the Conservation Foundation, a British nonprofit group said in a statement announcing the race.

How betting works
U.K.-based bookie Ladbrokes is taking bets on the 18 Shy Albatrosses, a species that numbers some 60,000 but which Australia says is declining fast. Worldwide, all 21 species of albatross -- the vast majority of which are declining and threatened with extinction -- are estimated to number under 4 million.

Each albatross in the race has its own "trainer" (scientists tracking the flight), "owner" (project sponsors), "jockey" (satellite transmitters) and "stable" (the islands they'll take off from.)

The birds -- or at least most of them -- are expected to follow their migratory route to Cape Horn. But the flight will take more than five months, leaving lots of time for betting along the 6,000-mile route.

"Daily, weekly and monthly bets will also be offered," Ladbrokes says on its Web site, "to ensure interest is maintained throughout the race."

Spectators and bettors can track progress online, and bets taken will include the first albatross to reach each hurdle along the way, the first to reach South Africa, the fastest average speed, and the winning stable.

Bettors will get to keep their winnings, but Ladbrokes says any profit it makes will all go to albatross conservation.

Science and saving birds
Ladbrokes also put up the money to buy the satellite transmitters, which Australian government researchers will use to track each bird.

IMAGE: DEAD ALBATROSS IN WATER
Graham Robertson  /  Australian Antarctic Division
This Wandering Albatross was killed on a longline hook, according to the American Bird Conservancy. For the photo, the bird was dropped back into the water from a fishing boat, still attached to the hook and line.
"The scientific data could be invaluable for conservation purposes - e.g. the tracking should show where the birds go to at sea and where they spend their time feeding," says Richard Thomas of BirdLife International, a group endorsing the race. "It is likely to be in particular sea areas and at particular times of the year. If so, restricting fishing at certain times of the year" in those areas "might be a big step forward in protecting the birds."

Thomas notes that such restrictions and mandatory steps like inexpensive bird-scaring lines and setting lines at night when birds can't see them have led to a sharp drop in albatrosses caught off New Zealand by Japanese longliners: from 4,000 per year to fewer than 20 birds. "This needs to happen oceanwide -- and urgently," he says.

Fishermen, he adds, also benefit from such steps because albatrosses aren't going after their bait. "The only people who will lose out are the 'pirate' fishermen ... who operate illegally and whom we wish to see off the high seas altogether," Thomas says.

In the United States, lines that scare birds away are given free to any Alaska fishermen who wants them, notes Gerald Winegrad of the American Bird Conservancy. But use is still low, he says, and regulations should be tightened further in Alaska as well as Hawaii and California.

Getting public involved
The race sponsors hope the public interest generated from the racing will lead to public pressure on governments to reign in their commercial fishing fleets.

International accords to reduce seabird deaths from longlining exist but many nations, particularly those in South America and Asia, have not signed or enforced them.

"This is an extremely important aspect," says Thomas. "It was public alarm and pressure over drift-netting on the high seas that was killing large numbers of dolphins that caused the technique to be banned by the United Nations in the 1980s.

"Public pressure to save the albatross will be vital too," he adds, "although in this case we are not calling for the longlining technique to be banned, just measures implemented so that birds aren't killed."

Thomas throws out some chilling numbers to make his point. The Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean "lost 86,000 pairs of Black-browed Albatrosses over five years in the 1990s," he says. "That equates to roughly two birds every hour of every day over the period."

No U.S. bets
Scientists have tracked birds on the route before using leg bands -- in fact the route record stands at 5 months, one week and four days -- but never in this fashion. "So far as I'm aware nobody has ever bet on the outcome," notes Thomas, "although I dare say there's been a few informal bets amongst the scientists involved."

Ladbrokes says bets can be placed in 230 countries, but that the United States won't be among them because its gambling laws ban U.S. residents from placing such bets over the phone or online.

So what happens if albatross betting becomes a global phenomenon? "Horseracing will always be the U.K.'s number one favorite," insists Ladbrokes spokeswoman Gemma Brass. "But who knows, if enough money is raised with the Big Bird Race then maybe albatrosses may one day outnumber horses."

The race is online at www.ladbrokes.com/bigbirdrace. Ladbrokes notes that a "bet-free" online tracking project aimed at schools is available at www.wildlifebiz.org.

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