Laysan Albatross Phoebastria immutabilis Scientific name definitions

Jill A. Awkerman, David J. Anderson, and G. Causey Whittow
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated September 30, 2009

Conservation and Management

Effects of Human Activity

Japanese feather hunters decimated colonies at Midway, Laysan, and Lisianski at the turn of the century (1900; see Distribution: historical changes). Former colonies at Volcano (Iwo), Wake, and Marcus islands have never recovered.

Military/Aircraft Interactions

Between 1958 and 1964, 2.4%–4.4% of aircraft landings and take-offs at Midway killed albatross (300–400 strikes/yr; Fisher 1966b, Robbins 1966). Strikes by aircraft are relatively more common among Laysans than Black-footeds (Fisher 1966b). Collisions with antennas killed more than 3,000 albatross in 1964–1965 (Fisher 1970). Tens of thousands were removed in order to reduce the number of collisions. Occasional collisions with aircraft on Midway and French Frigate Shoals still occur. Nests continue to be relocated from the vicinity of airfields.

Habitat Alteration

Destruction of birds and their habitat, meant to reduce aircraft collisions with birds, resulted in a population decline in the decade following World War II (Kenyon et al. 1958). Not all human activity has been harmful: introduction of soil and grass to Sand I., Midway has greatly increased nesting habitat for albatrosses.

Introduced Species

Introduced mammals in Hawaiian Is. (cats, dogs, mongoose) have become predators of albatrosses. Cats introduced to Guadalupe have killed Laysans. Introduced rabbits so reduced vegetation on Laysan and Lisianski that nesting habitat was harmed.

Pesticides And Other Contaminants

In 1969, visceral fat of birds on Midway contained appreciable amounts of dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), dichloro-diphenyl-dichloroethylene (DDE), polychloronated biphenyls (PCB), and measurable amounts of dichlorodiphenyl dichloroethane (DDD), dieldrin, and mercury (Fisher 1973); no known impact on reproduction. In 1992-93, Laysans on Midway were well below thresholds of DDE that typically cause egg thinning in similar piscivorous bird species (Auman et al. 1997b); however < 10 yr later, in 2003, PCB and DDE levels had increased by 30-260% (Finkelstein et al. 2006), suggesting increased contamination in the North Pacific. Birds on Midway also had intermediate levels of toxaphene in fat (Muir et al. 2002). Laysans had high levels of organochlorine pesticides and PCBs compared to other North Pacific seabirds. Chlorinated hydrocarbon levels were correlated with N isotopes, indicative of trophic level (Elliott 2005a).

Levels of DDE and PCB were lower than in sympatric Black-footeds (Auman et al. 1997b) that travel to the California Current and are exposed to greater amounts of pesticides (Finkelstein et al. 2006). North Pacific albatrosses have levels of PCBs sufficient to cause population effects in other piscivorous species (Auman et al. 1997b). Levels were 1-2 orders of magnitude higher than Southern Ocean albatrosses (Guruge et al. 2001, PCDDs and PCDFs – Tanabe et al. 2004), and contaminant loads in Black-footeds were associated with compromised immune function (Finkelstein et al. 2007). Possible long-term effects on reproduction or survival have not been investigated.

Ingestion of plastics is one proposed cause of high levels of chlorinated hydrocarbons in these birds (Carpenter et al. 1972a, Ryan 1987, Tanabe et al. 2004), although profiles did not match known sources. Similarities between levels in Laysan and Black-footed albatrosses with different pelagic distributions demonstrate the persistence of contaminants throughout the North Pacific (Jones et al. 1996a).

Lead-based paint chipping off military buildings were found in proventriculi of chicks and linked to elevated lead levels in blood and incidence of droop wing or lead poisoning in Laysan chicks (Sileo and Fefer 1987, Sileo et al. 1990b, Work and Smith 1996, Finkelstein et al. 2003). Laysan adults also had high levels of cadmium, mercury, and lead (Burger and Gochfeld 2000).

Oil Pollution

Oiled birds seen in colonies occasionally, although source is unknown (Fefer et al. 1984). Several spills have occurred near breeding grounds over the past 30 years (Naughton et al. 2007b). Laysans rated moderately vulnerable to oil pollution (King et al. 1979b).

Fishery Interactions

Bycatch mortality increased from 1978 to 1990, and was the greatest source of mortality in this species until closure of high-seas driftnet fisheries in 1992. Pelagic longlines remain responsible for high levels of bycatch mortality (Naughton et al. 2007b). For details, see Management (measures proposed), below.

Natural Disaster

Rising sea level associated with climate change has been identified as a potential threat for Laysans, which breed on small, low-elevation islands (Baker et al. 2006).


Conservation Status

Termination of drift net fishing in 1992 greatly reduced Laysan bycatch. Peak mortality in the late 1980s was estimated at more than 20,000 birds taken annually in this fishery alone. New regulations in April 2004 prohibited pelagic longline fisheries along the U.S. West Coast, restricted shallow sets of longlines, and required seabird avoidance measures to be used, such as streamers that deter seabirds from approaching baited hooks (Rivera 2006).

The designation of the Papah'naumoku'kea Marine National Monument in Hawai'i on 15 June 2006 established the world's largest protected marine reserve (140,000 square miles), where longline fishing is prohibited; however, Laysans spend a relatively small amount of time foraging in Hawaiian waters compared to the remainder of the northern Pacific, where their wide distribution overlaps with that of fishery operations, and the birds face other threats such as increasingly high contaminant levels.

Breeding colony monitoring and definition of at-sea distribution continues in order to better define population dynamics and spatial distribution of the species. At breeding colonies, measures have been proposed to restore native habitat and eradicate introduced plant and mammal species. Identification of contaminant threats focuses on effects of plastic ingestion and exposure to organochlorines and heavy metals. Lead-based paint chips are also being removed from Midway where frequent ingestion by Laysan chicks leads to developmental problems. Control of feral cat populations on Guadalupe Island started in 2003. Birds colonizing Kilauea Point on Kauai in the main Hawaiian Is. have been protected from dogs (Byrd and Telfer 1980b, Moriarty et al. 1986) and people by fencing. Birds have established a breeding colony there and are guarded by wildlife personnel. Rats have been eliminated from Kure and Midway Atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Is. At Kure Atoll and Midway, and at Barking Sands (Kauai), Dillingham Airfield (Oahu), and the Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station (Oahu) in the main islands, birds have been discouraged from nesting in areas of air traffic in order to ensure aircraft safety.

At sea, efforts to define location and frequency of longline fisheries bycatch continue, along with mitigation strategies to reduce this by-catch, the largest source of Black-footed mortality.

Laysan Albatross Large groupings of Laysan Albatrosses flying over the Midway Atoll seaplane hangar.
Large groupings of Laysan Albatrosses flying over the Midway Atoll seaplane hangar.

Historically, when this airport was active, humans attempted to remove these birds  because they crashed with planes. The following link is to this contributor's Flickr stream or website. http://www.flickr.com/photos/b52starr, Apr 06, 2009; photographer Beth Starr

Recommended Citation

Awkerman, J. A., D. J. Anderson, and G. C. Whittow (2020). Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.layalb.01