ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Monday extended protection for the endangered short-tailed albatross to include its habitat within the United States.
That includes coastal Alaska where the birds have occasionally been killed when they swoop down to grab the bait set out by long-line fishermen and get hooked, said Richard Hannan, the chief of fisheries and ecological services for the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Hannan said that, because the Alaska fishing fleet is already taking steps to protect the bird, the move is not likely to have much of an impact on fisheries.
''We don't believe there's going to be a significant impact on the fishing industry whatsoever,'' Hannan said.
Thorn Smith, executive director of the North Pacific Longline Association, agreed.
''We've been treating it as endangered anyway,'' Smith said.
The short-tailed albatross, with a wingspan that can reach 7 feet, is the largest albatross in the North Pacific.
In the late 19th century, there were an estimated 5 million of the birds, which nest on two remote Japanese islands in the western Pacific. But hunters, volcanic damage to nesting habitats, entanglement in fishing lines and competition for nesting habitat with other birds eventually reduced their numbers to near extinction.
''The Japanese killed this bird for food, feathers and rendering oil,'' Hannan said. Today, there are about 1,200 short-tailed albatross left in the world and their numbers are increasing by about 6 to 8 percent a year.
The move to extend Endangered Species Act protection for the bird to the United States corrects an administrative error made when the albatross was listed as endangered in 1973. That protected status extended only to the bird's presence in Japan, Russia and on the high seas.
''What we're doing is going back and rectifying that,'' Hannan said.
The long-line fleet, which catches cod, halibut and black cod in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska has occasionally caught short-tailed albatross.
Long-liners set out lines 3- to 5-miles long with hundreds of baited hooks attached. Birds try to poach scraps of fish from the hooks and sometimes get snagged by the hooks and pulled underwater.
There have been about five or six albatross killed by the Alaska long-line fleet in the past decade, Hannan said.
The fishermen are currently working with the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and other agencies on a project to bring down the number of seabird deaths.
Hannan said preliminary results of the project, now in its second year, indicate it's been a success.
The project includes the use of weighted lines. It also includes the deployment of a second line, with surgical tubing that dangles in the wind.
''That movement scares the birds from the line,'' Hannan said.
The results of the project have been so good that the Fish and Wildlife Service has been providing the special line for free to smaller boats and sharing the coast with larger boats.
''The preliminary results have found that decreases the seabird catch by about 90 percent,'' Hannan said.
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