Three years ago, one of Alaska's most productive fishing fleets was in a state of shock.
Bering Sea longline vessels had accidentally caught and killed two shorttailed albatross, a large and extremely rare seabird with a distinctive pink bill. Like many seabirds, the albatross has a penchant for diving at the strings of baited hooks deployed off fishing vessels, hoping for free food. If caught, the birds can be pulled underwater and drown.
Catching even one short-tailed albatross is cause for alarm. The birds are listed under the Endangered Species Act, and incidental catches in fisheries are strictly limited. Catches of more than four birds in a two-year period could lead to severe commercial fishing restrictions.
And so, the demise of two short-tailed albatross in rapid succession in the summer of 2010 stunned longliners targeting Pacific cod off Alaska. It had been 12 years since the last albatross take.
"We were hopeful this day would never come," a representative of the Freezer Longline Coalition said at the time. The Seattle-based trade association's member boats catch, process and freeze cod at sea, generating up to $200 million in annual export revenue.
Since 2010, federal officials have reported only one additional catch of short-tailed albatross. And an international scientific effort to recover the species is making significant headway.
Feather hunters looking for pillow down and writing quills harvested millions of short-tailed albatross, driving them to near extinction by the 1930s.
Today, the status of the surviving population is particularly precarious, not because of fishery takes so much as its preferred habitat.
The world population of short-tailed albatross is about 3,000 birds, with 500 to 550 breeding pairs. Most breed on Torishima, a remote western Pacific island off Japan. Torishima is...