Reimagining Conservation

Translocation of at-risk species raises many questions about what belonging will come to mean in a changing world.

THIS MIGHT SOUND STRANGE, but I’ve come to the beach in Maine in January because recently, I’ve been thinking about albatrosses in Hawai‘i. Let me explain. It’s not so much that the gulls here, which look like flecks of snow-covered stone thrown into the whipping air, remind me of their similarly hued, though significantly larger, cousins half a world away. Nor is this sea, grey as an old roof and shingled with shining ice, particularly reminiscent of warm waters shimmering in the hot tropical sun. No, I’ve come to this cold coast to reflect on Hawai‘i’s albatrosses because I want to encounter the peculiarity that arises when organisms are made to occupy spaces far from their species’ norms. In other words, I’m here to get myself thinking about out-of-place-ness.

What appears out of place to us today may become a recurring and troubling theme in the story of modern avian conservation.

Although albatrosses can spend up to 95 percent of their decades-long lives in flight, they need small, remote islets for resting, courtship, and nesting. But as these isolated scatterings of sea-surrounded sand spits get swallowed up by rising seas and storm surges, some seabirds will have nowhere left to breed by the end or even the middle of this century. For certain albatross species, particularly those partial to the tiny, low-lying isles northwest of Hawai‘i’s main chain, a future in which breeding remains possible may depend on “assisted colonization” — a controversial conservation measure underway on the island of O‘ahu. Controversial, because in moving organisms from place to place, out of their historic ranges or to regions already disrupted by species invasions, we realize that paradigms of natural indigeneity are often at odds with the realities of climate-driven displacement. Our stewardship of Earth’s biosphere, it seems, is not easily disentangled from our complicities in its alteration. Thus, what appears out of place to us today may become a recurring and troubling theme in the story of modern avian conservation.

Here on the beach, I look out to the waves. Currents crest the sea skyward, dislodging foam from its fluid world, hurling it into the colorless air. The foam flaps like frantic wings, then either lands before me on the shore, or disappears altogether.

BACK FROM THE BEACH, I squint down at my laptop. The image on my screen is one I’ve come back to, day after day. It’s small, about three by five inches. The birds in it, however — a baker’s dozen of Laysan albatrosses milling about in the afternoon sun — are large, with impressive white and charcoal wingspans up to six-and-a-half feet across. Beneath the albatross’ webbed feet, gentle undulations of short green grasses slope toward the rolling coastal ocean behind them. A translucent tan fence, around seven feet high, splits the scene, bringing the birds into foreground focus. Yet, upon closer inspection, four of the albatrosses appear unnaturally stiff, with smooth, matte black sides instead of the tousled, dark wing plumage of living Laysans.

As it turns out, these are wooden albatross decoys, part of an assisted seabird colonization program led by Pacific Rim Conservation (PRC) in O‘ahu’s James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge. The program has two main components: translocation and social attraction. Albatross decoys serve the latter component, the idea being that albatrosses looking for a place to breed will be enticed by the apparent presence of other seabirds. Translocation, on the other hand, is the moving of seabird chicks to new nesting sites before they encode the old sites as home. Pacific Rim Conservation hopes that social attraction in tandem with translocation will gradually help Laysan albatrosses — as well as black-footed albatrosses, which look like Laysans that have just emerged from a soot-filled chimney — establish breeding colonies on islands less vulnerable to worsening storms and rising seas than the small, low-lying isles where these birds historically nest. Both Laysan and black-footed albatrosses are classified as “Near Threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

“We are going to have to come to grips with moving species sometimes to islands where they’ve never been recorded before because other islands are either going to actually disappear or become uninhabitable to them,” Dr. Beth Flint, a biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Honolulu, tells me regarding the prospects of assisted colonization. She explains that some of the tiny islets making up French Frigate Shoals, a crucial seabird nesting atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, have already disappeared. “Two years ago we lost a whole island — completely gone — an island that had been the nesting site for over 2,000 black-footed albatrosses,” she says, referring to the damage caused by Hurricane Walaka in 2018. “So that’s a huge loss to a population of maybe only 70,000 pairs in the world, period.” Even if a low-lying island doesn’t wash away, the birds inhabiting it may die of heat exhaustion resulting from global temperature increases and wind reductions driven by climate change.

Much of O‘ahu sits farther above sea level than the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This makes James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge a prime place to practice translocations. Between 2015 and 2017, Pacific Rim Conservation staff moved 50 Laysan albatross chicks there from Kauai, where an active runway at the US Navy Pacific Missile Range Facility poses collision threats to returning and departing birds. Similarly, between 2017 and 2018, the organization translocated nearly as many black-footed albatross chicks from Midway Atoll and Tern Island, both of which sit just a few meters above sea level.

Once the chicks arrived, devoted PRC staff raised them by hand, continually feeding them natural foods like fish and squid, weighing them, and otherwise monitoring them until they reached fledging age after five months. During this time, the young albatrosses hardly resemble their gracile parents, looking instead like bowling ball-sized tufts of grey shag carpeting. Of the 50 translocated Laysan chicks, 46 fledged; 36 out of 40 black-footed chicks fledged as well. Albatrosses, once fledged, can spend up to five years at sea before returning to the island they have imprinted upon. That is why staff were likely thrilled when one Laysan chick from the group translocated in 2015 returned to James Campbell in 2018 and has continued to return each year since. Three albatrosses from the 2016 cohort returned in 2020. Moreover, the refuge has been visited by several hundred wild adult Laysans, likely allured by the social attraction program. So far, two wild pairs have stuck around to breed.

What I don’t get from the image on my computer screen, besides the scent of sea life and the sensation of sunshine on my skin, is the sound of albatross calls being broadcast from solar-powered speakers scattered among the nesting sites. These calls, some of which sound a bit like cabinets squeaking open, have almost certainly contributed to the early success of PRC’s social attraction system. Additionally, while I can see a fence running in and out of the frame on both sides of the image, I cannot see what it intends to keep out. Rising seas and storms are not the only threats nesting seabirds face. Land predators, like cats, rats, and pigs, all of which have been introduced by humans to the Hawaiian Islands, are extremely detrimental to seabird nesting populations. That is why PRC built a 3,690-foot, state-of-the-art predator exclusion barrier, complete with miniscule mesh to keep out meddling mice, a skirt belowground to discourage bothersome burrowers, and an overhead hood to keep out even the cleverest cats.

We exist in a world where albatross chicks may find first flight on airplanes.

PRC staff remain hopeful that more albatrosses of both species, as well as smaller seabirds such as Bonin petrels and Tristram’s storm petrels, will return to James Campbell in the coming years.

Conservation biologists are now exploring the possibility of translocating black-footed albatrosses to Isla Guadalupe, a rugged, ferruginous island off the Mexican coast, famed for its stunning abundance of great white sharks, as well as a handful of other islets nearby where small numbers of albatrosses have nested naturally in years past. They are also grappling with the idea of extending the black-footed albatross assisted colonization program to California’s Channel Islands National Park, where the species has never bred before. The US National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy, which co-manage the Channel Islands, “are at the stage where they’re thinking: Is this appropriate; is it safe for the other species there?” Flint says. “It’s an idea that’s percolating in the minds of conservationists and it will be controversial because there’s lots of people in our ranks who are like: No, no you cannot move things to where they don’t belong!

Translocations do raise many questions about what belonging will come to mean in the Anthropocene. For instance, to what extent does being “non-native” affect an animal’s relationship to place and the other creatures around it? How do we acknowledge the importance of preserving indigeneity while accepting the need for migrant or introduced species to colonize regions they previously did not inhabit? Reckoning with these questions requires a degree of empathy we rarely show each other, let alone other living beings. And with any call for empathy comes a chance to explore new modes of understanding.

We have to recognize that these are strange and tragic times, in which conservation methodologies that conflict with typical notions of what is right or natural may become unavoidable if certain species are to persist into the future. We exist in a world where albatross chicks may find first flight on airplanes thrumming from Midway to James Campbell, cradled in crates or the arms of compassionate caretakers. A world where, over time, we may have to entangle new and seemingly unrelated species in the albatrosses’ plight and thus further complicate the network of reliance that binds all living things. Our attempts at understanding must therefore extend into and beyond the ecology of each prospective translocation area, to inform us of impending interactions on both local and global levels.

Perhaps most importantly, we need to understand that assisted colonization cannot stand as a solution in and of itself. For unless it complements more robust and comprehensive conservation measures that actively counter climate change, it will merely crowd creatures destined for extinction closer and closer to us, until they truly have nowhere left to go.

ISLAND BIRDS, BOTH BIG AND TINY, transient and endemic, are extremely vulnerable to change, given that the ecosystems they have evolved to inhabit are so small and easily assailable. I wasn’t too surprised to learn, therefore, that PRC’s albatross project was not the first translocation effort in the Hawaiian region.

In 2011 and 2012, PRC and the American Bird Conservancy collected 50 Nihoa millerbirds, a miniscule brown-and-olive land bird also known by the Hawaiian name ulūlu, endemic to Nihoa Island. Conservationists relocated the millerbirds to Laysan Island as part of a USFWS effort to establish a second, “short-term,” “security” population of the species in case one or the other was wiped out.

“We need to get better at telling stories of ambivalent success, of dedicated care and achievement that are nevertheless tinged with the unavoidable uncertainty of our Anthropocene epoch,” Dr. Thom van Dooren, Australian field philosopher and writer on extinction and conservation, wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2019. “The millerbird project was an ambivalent success not because the plan didn’t work out, but rather because we now live in a world in which the best plans, the best options, are so far from ideal, and far even from what might have been possible a few decades ago.”

If albatrosses and other birds are to remain in this world, then we must find ways to foster greater balance between ambivalent successes and largescale change; between avian belonging and ecological stability; and, crucially, between tales of tragedy and stories of hope.

Note: Preview photograph accompanying this article on the Journal homepage of two albatrosses at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge by Kristy Lapenta / USFWS - Pacific Region.

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