The word albatross is sometimes used metaphorically to mean a psychological burden that feels like a curse. It's an allusion to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), but today they're not being shot by seamen; rather they're 'shooting' illegal fishermen.
Albatrosses have been used to detect illegal fishing in the Indian Ocean in a pioneering study by researchers at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Illegal fishing is estimated to cost 19.5 billion euros a year globally, but satellite monitoring of boats can be slow, costly and inaccurate.
The team strapped 169 wandering albatrosses with sensors that detect a boat’s radar. The sensors can then confirm whether the boat’s transponder, which enables authorities to track the vessel, is switched on. Transponders are often switched off during illegal fishing.
CNRS team leader Henri Weimerskirch says albatrosses make ideal trackers: “They are large birds, they travel over huge distances and they are very attracted to fishing vessels.”
Over a six-month period roughly a third of vessels detected in the Southern Indian Ocean were not broadcasting their whereabouts, the research found. Weimerskirch says this cheap form of surveillance could complement satellite monitoring. “We have shown it is possible,” he says.