Extending Protection to Wildlife: Why the United States Should Ratify the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels

by David Hunter

February 27, 2012

a(broad) perspective

Today’s post is first in a series on a recent CPR white paper, Reclaiming Global Environmental Leadership: Why the United States Should Ratify Ten Pending Environmental Treaties.  Each month, this series will discuss one of these ten treaties. 

Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels
Adopted and Opened for Signature on June 19, 2001
Entered into Force on February 1, 2004
Number of Parties: 13
Signed by the United States, June 19, 2001
Sent to the Senate on September 26, 2008, and January 16, 2009

Albatrosses and petrels are oceanic birds with a unique natural history:  they typically breed on remote, barren islands and spend most of their time flying long distances over the ocean.  Some species may not return to land for many years after birth and then only briefly to reproduce.  This highly migratory natural history means that these birds spend little time in any single country’s territory; most of their life is spent in international waters, where they are threatened by industrial fishing practices and marine pollution.  For example, an estimated 300,000 seabirds are killed each year as by-catch in the long-line fishing industry.   

The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels aims to enhance international cooperation for protecting these vulnerable species, including all 22 of the world’s species of albatrosses and seven species of petrels.  Parties to the Agreement commit to take a wide range of conservation measures, such as:

  • conserve and restore breeding habitat;
  • eliminate or control non-native species;
  • prohibit the deliberate taking of, or harmful interference with, the birds, their eggs, or their breeding sites;
  • prohibit the use of or trade in the birds; and
  • reduce or prevent incidental mortality from commercial fishing operations. 

The Agreement also calls for increased capacity building, exchange of scientific information, and efforts to increase public awareness of the threats to albatrosses and petrels.  The Agreement establishes a separate Secretariat and a periodic meeting of the Parties.

The United States initially signed but did not ratify the Agreement, effectively declining to participate in it.  However, both the George W. Bush and Obama Administrations have supported ratification by transmitting the Agreement to the Senate for its advice and consent to ratification.  The Bush Administration concurrently proposed the Albatross and Petrel Conservation Act, which was intended to implement the Agreement and mirrors much of its language.  The Act would authorize the Departments of Interior and Commerce to implement conservation and management measures for protecting albatross and petrel species.  The Act would also prohibit the deliberate taking of albatrosses and petrels and protect their breeding habitat and minimize the incidental killing of these birds from otherwise legal fishing activities.

Ratifying the treaty would enhance U.S. efforts to promote international cooperation in conserving these iconic seabirds, does not require substantive changes to U.S. law, and would likely benefit commercial fishermen in the United States.  Federal law already protects albatrosses and petrels and includes most of the Agreement’s obligations.  Some of the target species breed in U.S. territory but forage throughout the world, well beyond U.S. jurisdiction or control, and effective conservation is impossible without the cooperation of other fishing and coastal states.   Little opposition exists to the Agreement’s ratification, other than the general difficulty of achieving consensus in the US Congress for any environmental measure.  

The agreement is the latest in a long line of treaties aimed at the conservation of marine species that require international cooperation for their survival.  Wildlife such as whales, fur seals, tuna, and sea turtles are all protected by international agreements. The United States is a party to all of these agreements, and we should continue our leadership for the conservation of marine wildlife by swiftly ratifying the Agreement for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, and both chambers of Congress should pass implementing legislation.

For more information, please read the full CPR white paper, available here.

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Also from David Hunter

David Hunter is a Professor of Law and Director of the International Legal Studies Program at American University, Washington College of Law, and Director of the Washington Summer Session on Environmental Law.

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