Friday, June 18, 2010

Are WE Starving Our Penguins?


Penguin numbers in huge decline as food sources disappear.

In contrast to the common image of miles of black and white tuxedoed bodies converging on Antarctic sea ice in the media the world’s penguins are facing an “extinction crisis”.

Eating the penguin to extiction

According to the ICUN Redlist more than 60% of the planet’s 18 species of penguin are threatened by extinction. This percentage increases to over 70% when “near threatened” species are taken into account.
Penguin Expert Dr. David Ainley says that competition with humans in the industrialised world for food is the fundamental cause for plummeting penguin numbers.

“The main threat [to penguins] is depletion of fish by industrial fishing,” Ainley recently explained, “and all penguin species except for the Antarctic ones, whose habitat so far is protected a bit by sea ice, have been seriously affected by this […] Penguins need lots of food, nearby, reliably available. It’s easy for fishing to negatively alter this,”

Contrary to popular opinion only four penguin species is native to Antarctica and its surrounding islands. These are the species that are most isolated from human disturbance and as a result the least threatened. “The Antarctic penguins are still very abundant and an appreciable number of reporters find their way to their areas. So, we get story after story after story about the penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, to which lots of nature tours go, and little from elsewhere. Most of the other penguin species occur on offshore islands which are often harder to get to for the usual media story,” Ainley explains.

The role played by climate change

Penguins also suffer from the destruction of their breeding areas by humans and climate change however Ainley makes clear that these threats are far less important in isolation that the damage industrialised fishing has wrought on the marine environment.

“That’s the inconvenient truth that even the climate change champions can’t admit.” He says.
However climate change alongside industrialised fishing will result in further pressure on penguin food sources.

“Changed wind patterns, affected upwelling, altered ocean temperature, and eventually greater acidification which will affect process way down in the food webs relative to where penguins occur in them,” Evidence has shown that where there is lower fish availability penguins are in decline, a trend seen across the world.
“[Penguins'] very high energy needs make them very sensitive to food availability and other ecosystem processes that affect food,” Ainley explains. “It ‘costs’ a lot of energy to swim in the ocean, especially the cold ocean where penguins occur. Since they don’t fly, they are very poor at searching for food. Thus, it is very necessary for there to be a lot of food in known locations.” said Ainley.

As the main predatory species in many areas penguins act as good indicator species for the general condition of oceans, especially for the marine food chain. Unfortunately findings aren’t good, many reports showing that industrialised fishing has “simplified” marine food webs negatively impacting on penguins and many other species.

Human lust for oil

One species of penguin is also at threat from the infamously destructive human desire for fossil fuels. Southern African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus) exists in one of the world’s busiest shiping regions. The species has been seriously affected by two oil spills in the last two decades – 1994 and 2000- killing at least 30,000 penguins. The lasted spill in 2000 launched the largest ever bird rescue where tens of thousands of volunteers battled to save oiled birds.

“Add to [the oil spills] the huge alteration of the Benguela Current, owing to fish depletion, and it is little wonder that this species is critically endangered,” says Ainley. He warns that other species of penguins may become threatened by oil spills as well. If drilling ever happens on Falklands Shelf—and this must be the reason that Argentina and UK went to war, i.e. for potential oil—then a number of penguin populations there would be vulnerable,” says Ainley.

There are 5 species of penguin that breed on the Fawklands, a spill here would be devastating for the world’s penguins.

What you can do

Of all the threats facing penguins’ industrialised fishing remains the greatest. Penguin lovers can help protect the birds by “asking for the establishment of marine protected areas, which are the only way to control the fishing industry and prevent the ultimate complete depletion of Earth’s marine resources.” said Ainley.

Consumers are also advised not to purchase Chilean Sea Bass, a species that’s decline is affecting a number of animals, from whales and seals to penguins. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program lists this fish as one which consumers should avoid.

“As the penguins said in Happy Feet, which I thought to be a very good film, much more sophisticated and true than March of the Penguins: ‘STOP EATING OUR FISH!!!’” concluded Ainley.


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