Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
Monitoring Project

Tracking Black-footed Albatross Movements and Conservation

Principal Investigator(s)

  • Michelle Hester
    Oikonos - Ecosystem Knowledge
  • Josh Adams
    United States Geological Survey (USGS)
  • Pam Michael
    Hawai'i Pacific University
  • David Hyrenbach
    Hawai'i Pacific University
  • Cynthia Vanderlip
    Applied Marine Sciences
  • Carol Keiper
    Oikonos - Ecosystem Knowledge
  • Michael Carver
    Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary


  • Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary
  • Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
  • National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
  • National Geographic Society
  • West Coast Region, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
  • Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument
  • State of Hawaii, DLNR-Division of Forestry and Wildlife
  • U. S. Geological Survey
  • Bonnell Cove Foundation
  • Hawaii Pacific University
  • U. S. Satellite Laboratories
  • Oikonos
  • Moss Landing Marine Laboratory
  • Bodega Marine Laboratory
  • Pacific Islands Region, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
Start Date: May 01, 2004
End Date: May 01, 2008

The Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), one of three albatross species living in the North Pacific, is listed as ‘endangered’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) because of projected population declines partly due to longline fisheries bycatch, high levels of plastic ingestion, and organo-chlorinated pollutant loads (Croxall & Gales, 1998; Lewison & Crowder, 2003, Arata et al. 2009; BirdLife 2011). While most Black-footed Albatross breed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, they are known to forage in the waters of central California during the chick-rearing season (Hyrebach et al. 2002; 2006) and occur in high densities from early spring – summer in association with upwelling (Briggs et al. 1987; NCCOS, 2003), often in National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS).

Both IUCN and US Fish and Wildlife Service consider tracking the at-sea movements and distributions of this species a priority conservation action (BirdLife, 2004; Arata et al. 2009). In particular, there is a major information need concerning albatross movements and habitats during the far-ranging post-breeding dispersal stage, when longline fisheries bycatch rates appear greatest (Cousins & Cooper, 2000; Hyrenbach & Dotson, 2003).

To address some of these needs, we characterized the movements and distributions of 47 albatross from two unique locations using satellite telemetry data (Figure 1). Thirty-six post-breeding birds were tagged at-sea within the Cordell Bank NMS, off central California during four years (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008; Figure 2A). Eleven breeding birds were tagged at Kure Atoll (Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument; PMNM) in the late chick-rearing period (May –June) and post-breeding seasons (July-October) of 2008 (Figures 2B and 2C). We evaluated Black-footed Albatross distribution relative to static oceanic habitats (bathymetric domains and features) and existing jurisdictions (national exclusive economic zones and US sanctuaries).

Summary to Date

The 47 individual albatross tagged yielded data for 2,236 days (Table 1). The mean tracking duration was 47.6 days (range: 21.3–74.0), during which albatrosses traveled an average of 9,689 km (range: 2,396–19,244). Of the eleven birds tagged on Kure, seven completed a total of 14 foraging loops to provision their chicks in late May – early June. Only year related to significantly different oceanic habitat and jurisdiction use (MRPP results: p < 0.02, A = 0.08), indicating that the distribution of the individual birds tagged at Cordell Bank differed from year-to-year.

Although highly variable, albatross spent a substantial proportion of their time within international waters (high-seas), beyond national jurisdictions across tagging location and breeding season (Figure 3). Birds tagged at Cordell Bank entered the waters of five nations (Japan, Russia, Canada, Mexico and US). Post-breeding birds from Kure entered the waters of all these nations except Mexico. In contrast, chick-rearing birds from Kure only ranged into the US Hawai’i EEZ surrounding their breeding site and averaged ~27% of their time within the PMNM), highlighting the smaller-scale foraging movements during this period. Only one albatross from Kure entered a sanctuary (Olympic Coast NMS off Washington State) after leaving PMNM. Conversely, many albatross tagged at Cordell Bank NMS utilized multiple NMS along the West coast of U.S. (Figure 4), including the three who entered the Davidson seamount management area of Monterey Bay NMS.

Though albatross use of oceanic habitats was variable, all depth domains were entered and most individuals spent the majority of their time within the pelagic realm, over deep (> 2,000 m) oceanic waters. Interestingly, the Kure adults provisioning chicks did not commute to shallow shelves (previously documented in Tern Island, French Frigate Shoals in Hyrenbach et al. 2002; 2006). Rather, these birds remained within deep waters, where they visited seamounts and flew over shallow (depth < 200 m) waters only on their way to / from their breeding colony (Figure 2C). Upon departing for the post-breeding dispersal, Kure birds ranged over deep pelagic waters, on their way to shallower shelf – slope regions on the periphery of the basin including Japan, Kuril Islands, Aleutian Islands, Gulf of Alaska, and Washington – British Columbia.

Monitoring Trends

  • Albatross habitat use varies on multiple temporal scales, including breeding season (chick-rearing vs. post-breeding; where movements are generally restricted) and year, likely related to dynamic environmental conditions
  • Though mainly breeding on US islands, Black-footed Albatross traverse the waters of multiple nations and spend a significant portion of their time beyond national jurisdictions (high-seas) and highlight the shared international responsibilities for their conservation.
  • The use of multiple NMS by post-breeding albatross highlights the connectivity between the West coast NMS on the continental shelf and offshore features including seamounts, exemplified by the Davidson Seamount. Though only observed in one albatross, the link between the remotely located PMNM and the Olympic Coast NMS indicates that year-to-year variability in regional oceanographic conditions may attract far-ranging albatross from different locations to the same productive continental shelf regions.
  • All albatross ventured into pelagic waters (> 2,000 m deep), with most (53%) returning to shallow continental shelves: either along the West Coast (17 of 36) or in the Northwest Pacific (off northern Japan and the Kuril Islands; 2 of 36). This suggests that both pelagic and shelf / slope domains are important components of albatross habitat and merit attention when developing conservation measures to protect black-footed albatross


These datasets provide two complementary perspectives of albatross movements within different periods of their life-cycle and seasonal geographic range. Furthermore, the integrated analysis of albatross movements from multiple tagging locations allows the exploration of connectivity between breeding and post-breeding sites and the locations of important aggregation “hotspots” (Figure 5). Given the vast jurisdictional and bathymetric range of their movements, multilateral communication and cooperation will be essential to protect this far-ranging species.

Acknowledgments Hannah Nevins (Oikonos) and Cheryl Baduini (Claremont Colleges) were instrumental in planning and design at the start of the research and provided guidance throughout. We thank the skilled volunteer field personnel: Sue Abbott, Amon Armstrong, Denise Hardesty, Diana Humple, Franz Kuemmeth, Tanner Nevill, ViolaToniolo, Sophie Webb. We thank the skilled skippers, Michael Carver, Josh Churchman, Skyli McAfee, Tom Baty, and the crews of the RV Fulmar and Shelia B. who safely guided us out over Cordell Bank and the Monterey Bay canyon. For providing the many pounds of squid, we thank woman-owned Will’s Bait and Tackle in Bodega Bay, CA. On Kure Atoll, the NOAA vessel RV Oscar Setter and Midway NWR provided transportation to the breeding colony. We thank the personnel on Kure assisting with the field work: Brad Vanderlip, Amarisa, Jessie Lopez, and Mike Lewis.

Arata, J.A., Sievert, P.R., Naughton, M.B., 2009, Status assessment of Laysan and black-footed albatrosses, North Pacific Ocean, 1923–2005: U. S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009-5131, 80 p. BirdLife International. 2004. Tracking ocean wanderers: the global distribution of albatrosses and petrels Cambridge, UK: BirdLife International. Available at: BirdLife International. 2011. Species factsheet: Phoebastria nigripes. (accessed October 1, 2011). Briggs, K.T., Tyler, W.B., Lewis, D.B., & Carlson, D.R. 1987. Bird communities at sea off California. Studies in Avian Biology, 11:1–74. Calenge, C. (2006) The package "adehabitat" for the R software: A tool for the analysis of space and habitat use by animals. Ecological Modelling 197:516-519 Cousins, K., Cooper, J. (Eds.) 2000. The Population Biology of the Black-Footed Albatross in Relation to Mortality Caused by Longline Fishing. Honolulu, Hawaii: Western Management Regional Fishery Management Council. Croxall, J.P., & Gales, R. 1998. An assessment of the conservation status of albatrosses. In: Robertson, G., Gales, R. (Eds.), Albatross Biology and Conservation. Chipping Norton: Australia. pp. 46–65. Freitas, C., Lydersen, C., Fedak, M.A., Kovacs, K.M., 2008. A simple new algorithm to filter marine mammal Argos locations. Marine Mammal Science, 24: 315–325. Hyrenbach, K. D., Dotson, R.C. 2003. Assessing the susceptibility of female Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) to longline fisheries during their post-breeding dispersal: an integrated approach. Biological Conservation, 112: 391-404. Hyrenbach, K.D., Fernandez, P., Anderson, D.J., 2002. Oceanographic habitats exploited by two sympatric North Pacific albatross during breeding season. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 233: 283–301. Hyrenbach, K.D., Keiper, C., Allen, S.G., Anderson, D.J., Ainley, D.G. 2006. Use of national marine sanctuaries by far-ranging predators: commuting flights to the California Current System by breeding Hawaiian albatrosses. Fisheries Oceanography, 15: 95-103. Lewison, R.L., Crowder, L.B. 2003. Estimating fishery bycatch and effects on a vulnerable seabird population. Ecological Applications, 13: 743-753. McCune, B., Grace, JB. 2002. Multi-response Permutation Procedures. Analysis of Ecological Communities. MjM, Gleneden Beach, Oregon. Phillips, R.A., Xavier, J.C., Croxall, J.P. 2003. Effects of satellite transmitters on albatrosses and petrels. Auk, 120:1082–1090. Links to Additional Articles and Activities Race for a Clean Ocean – 2008 Albatross Migrations Tennesen, M. 2005. Just a trip to the store…on wide wide wings. Wildlife Conservation (108:6):64. Keiper, C., Hester, M. and D. Hyrenbach. 2005. Wondrous Ocean Wanderers. Hydrosphere (17). For classroom activities that focus on this albatross research, their fascinating life history, satellite tracking, and lab-based scientific investigations and plastic pollution prevention, visit the Winged Ambassadors website.

Study Parameters

  • Habitat association
  • Distribution

Study Methods

We address two spatial scales of management importance for understanding albatross movements and habitats; basin-scale (national jurisdictions and a three large ‘domains’ of the North Pacific Ocean where different longline fisheries operate: Eastern (110 – 150 o W), Central (150 – 180 o W) and Western (145 – 180 o E) and regional scale (finer-scale bathymetric habitats used by BFAL including continental shelf-slope systems and seamounts).

Satellite tags were attached to a total of 36 albatross in Cordell Bank NMS waters in July – August over four years (2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008) and eleven known breeding albatross on Kure Atoll in May of 2008. Gender was determined for all albatross using genetic methods. Tags were attached using waterproof tap and small amounts of epoxy on dorsal body feathers between the wings. This attachment method was used as it is ensures the loss of the tag with the albatross’s next molt and is minimally invasive. Though unable to assess potential detrimental tag effects, such effects are unlikely as the tag and attachment materials were well below the proportion of average albatross body mass (1.5 to 1.9 %), recommended for birds (<3 % equivalent body mass; Phillips et al. 2003). Data collection rate (duty-cycle) of tags varied.

Filtering and Interpolation
ARGOS locations were filtered to correct ‘’mirror’’ and remove duplicate and low quality locations using the Satellite Tracking and Analysis Tool (STAT; Coyne and Godley, 2005). Remaining data were filtered in R using the argosfilter package to remove locations indicating unlikely albatross travel speeds (≥ 70 km / h or 19.4 m / s) and unrealistic turning-angles (default settings; Freitas et al. 2008). To estimate time spent per area we used the filtered data to generate hourly locations according to the linear method in Tremblay et al. (2006) for consecutive locations separated by < 8 hrs. Thus, the total distances traveled by BFAL were calculated from these locations should be considered a minimum as we assumed a straight line travel from consecutive locations.

Data grouping
We tested for differences in oceanic habitat and jurisdiction use between genders, year, and the data-collection rate (duty-cycle) of tags using a Multi-response Permutation Procedures (MRPP), a non-parametric multivariate test of the difference in average within-group ranked distances, used to determine the statistical association within and across pre-defined groups (McCune & Grace, 2002) using PC-Ord. Significance was defined at α = 0.05.

First, we used the speed-distance-angle ARGOS filter (SDAfilter in the argosfilter package in R; Freitas et al. 2008) to winnow unrealistic location outliers. Second, we calculated 95% Brownian bridge utilization distributions (95UDs; Horne et al. 2007; function kernelbb, in the adehabitat package in R; Calenge, 2006). To create 95UDs, we specified the first (19.44 m) and second (2490 m) smoothing parameters which relate to albatross speed and ARGOS location estimate inaccuracy, respectively. To represent utilization distributions graphically we summed individual 95UDs and mapped the raster layers in ArcMap 9.3.1 using the World Mollweide equal area projection based on WGS 84 geoid data and displayed with a color gradient (blue to red = low to high use, Figure 5).

Figures and Images

Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes) tagged at-sea in the vicinity of Cordell Bank. A Kiwisat 101 (54 g, 50 x 26 x 11 mm) satellite transmitter (antenna visible) was attached to the back feathers with waterproof tape. Photo donated for educational use only by Mike Danzenbaker.

Table 1. Black-footed Albatross satellite telemetry data, summarized by year and tagging site. Tracking distance refers to the minimum distance traveled by tagged albatross, assuming a straight path between consecutive satellite locations (see methods for details).

Figure 1. Black-footed Albatross use of different bathymetric domains, shown by color-coding albatross locations according to jurisdiction: National Marine Sanctuary / Marine National Monument (red), Economic Exclusive Zone (EEZ, yellow) and high-seas (black). Abbreviations include: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale NMS, Olympic Coast NMS (OCNMS), Gulf of the Farallones NMS (GFNMS), Cordell Bank NMS (CBNMS), Monterey Bay NMS (MBNMS), and Channel Islands NMS (CINMS).

Figure 2. Locations of Black-footed Albatross tagged at (A) Cordell Bank during post-breeding, 36 adults in 2004, 2006 – 2008) (B) Kure Atoll during post-breeding, 11 adults in 2008 and (C) Kure Atoll during the chick-rearing season, 7 adults that made 14 foraging loops in 2008.

Figure 3. BFAL overlap with different basin-scale jurisdictions: international waters (high-seas) and national 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), summarized by year and tagging site: Cordell Bank (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008; left panel) and Kure Atoll (2008) (right panel). The mean (+/- SD) of the proportional time spent by each individual bird within each nation’s territorial waters are shown.

Figure 4. BFAL overlap with US National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments, summarized by year and tagging site: Cordell Bank (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008) (top panel) and Kure Atoll (2008) (bottom panel). The mean (SD) of the proportional time within US waters that individual BFAL spent in each sanctuary are shown. Asterisks (*) denote Sanctuaries or Monument with no albatross overlap.

Figure 5. Northeast Pacific habitat utilization by 36 BFALs tagged over four years (2004, 2005, 2007, 2008) at CBNMS and tracked during the post-breeding season (July – October) displayed with a color gradient (blue to red = low to high use).

Adult Black-footed Albatross. Photo by © Sophie Webb.

Black-footed Albatross chick begging for food to its parent at the breeding colony on the Kure Atoll Seabird Sanctuary. Photo © Cynthia Vanderlip.