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Last Updated: Sunday, 27 July, 2003, 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK
Atlantic oarsman champions albatrosses
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

A British sailor whose name is a byword for fortitude, John Ridgway, has picked a new challenge.

Wandering albatross   P Bucktrout/BAS
Wandering albatross: All the species have been hit by longlines
(Image: P Bucktrout/Bas)
Ridgway, who in 1966 rowed the North Atlantic, is setting out to save the world's albatrosses.

He expects to confront the pirate fishing fleets whose methods kill thousands of seabirds annually.

His boat, the 17-metre (57 feet) ketch English Rose VI, has its own website to enable a global audience to participate.

Ridgway's voyage, on which his wife is sailing too, will consist of seven legs, each highlighting the plight of a different albatross species.

He left Scotland on 27 July, heading for the Canary Islands and then to Cape Town in South Africa.

Black market fish

From there he will sail east, following the route of the wandering albatross to Australia and New Zealand.

Wandering albatrosses   P Bucktrout/BAS
If we make them extinct, after millions of years, during our lifetime, what luck awaits the hapless human race
John Ridgway
After calling at the Falkland Islands capital, Port Stanley, he will return to Cape Town, and expects to be back in the UK in a year's time.

Ornithologists say it was the introduction of longline fishing in the 1980s that devastated the albatrosses.

They estimate more than 300,000 seabirds die annually after swallowing the baited hooks, either drowning or else too injured to survive.

The world's longliners set as many as a billion hooks annually, on lines up to 130 kilometres (80 miles) long. Methods of reducing the toll include:

  • bird-scaring lines with flapping coloured streamers
  • weighted bait to make the lines sink faster
  • fishing at night, when large albatrosses are unlikely to be feeding
  • avoiding fishing during the birds' breeding season
  • not discharging fish waste when setting lines.
BirdLife International says pirate ships are seizing the opportunity in poorly-policed waters to ignore mitigation measures.

Ridgway wants pirate boats, many sailing under flags of convenience, banned, and international action taken to close down their black market in fish.

Of the 21 southern hemisphere albatross species, 17 are believed to be dangerously close to extinction.

Band of volunteers

The most threatened is the Amsterdam albatross, with just 90 left worldwide - only 13 pairs breed in any one year.

Another seabird at great risk is the spectacled petrel. A thousand die on longline hooks annually, from an estimated global population of no more than 10,000.

Ridgway said: "I cannot stand by and watch this happen. I'm putting together and funding an entirely independent voyage round the world to raise public awareness and prevent this needless slaughter.

Black-browed albatross   K Reid/BAS
An icon of the southern waters: Black-browed albatross
(Image: K Reid/Bas)
"My volunteer crew, experts in their fields, are giving up to a year of their lives to help me. This is the most we can do. It may be the last chance for the albatross. To save them, all that's needed is a willing captain on every fishing boat."

Dr Euan Dunn is head of the marine team at the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He said: "After drawing inspiration from the sea all his life, John's journey is a powerful gesture that will highlight not only the plight of albatrosses but also man's failure to properly look after our oceans.

"But above all, it's a wake-up call to crack down on pirate fishing before albatrosses and other seabirds vanish from the planet."

John Ridgway has sailed this route twice before. He told BBC News Online: "I love the southern ocean. There's no trace of man or his mess.

"Many's the time on a lonely watch it's just been me and the albatross. It's the spirit of life, really. If we make them extinct, after millions of years, during our lifetime, what luck awaits the hapless human race, I wonder?"

Hopes rise for albatrosses
08 May 03  |  Science/Nature
Albatrosses get prince's protection
30 Jul 03  |  Science/Nature
Where the albatross wanders
31 Aug 00  |  Science/Nature


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