Thursday, July 16, 2015

Government says it’s working to save our starving penguins

RDM News Wire | 15 July, 2015 17:15
A zoo employee holds a 3-week-old African penguin chick, also known as the Black-footed penguin. File photo. Image by: STRINGER / REUTERS

The Department of Environmental Affairs says there is a plan to save the endangered African Penguin‚ which is dying in huge numbers due to lack of food.

The decreases in numbers have been particularly severe in the north region of Cape Town‚ where numbers decreased by 90% in the eleven-year period 2004–2015‚ with a loss of 30‚000 pairs‚ the department said in a statement. “Heavy losses were recorded at Dassen and Robben islands where adult survival rates decreased substantially.”

The dying off of penguins is linked to a large decrease in the number of sardines – its main prey‚ along with anchovy fish. “The impact of an altered distribution of prey may have been exacerbated by fishing in the vicinity of the Western penguin colonies‚” the department said.

A recent report by the UK’s University of Exeter researchers‚ who studied the penguins at Robben Island‚ found: “Large-scale changes in the marine environment have caused a change in the breeding grounds of adult sardine and anchovy. These fish now mostly breed further east than they did two decades ago and are out of reach of penguin colonies on South Africa’s West Coast for much of the year. This mismatch between breeding penguins and their prey has raised concerns that competition with small-pelagic fishing vessels around breeding colonies may be one of a number of factors contributing to the penguins’ decline.”

The African penguin is classified as Endangered in terms of the criteria of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The department said numbers of African penguins in the Eastern Cape have been stable since 2003‚ whereas numbers between Cape Point and Cape Agulhas have increased slightly in recent years. However‚ the department said‚ “the apparent stabilisation of the population over the last four years is encouraging‚ but should not be interpreted as an indication that the long term decline has definitely ended.”

The Department said it was working with various organisations to help ensure the survival of the penguins. This included: - “Securing the protected status of all extant African penguin colonies‚ including those not currently formally protected‚ - “Considering establishment of new breeding sites closer to the present availability of food‚ and - Ensuring an adequate abundance of prey for penguins at existing colonies.”

The University of Exeter study said survival of the endangered African penguin chicks had increased by 18% following a trial three-year fishery closure around Robben Island. “The benefit of the closure so far measured is not sufficient to offset the high adult mortality that has occurred in recent years‚” it cautioned. "Although this study has shown that the fishery closure around Robben Island has improved chick survival‚ if the current fishing pressure exerted on sardine in particular continues on the west coast‚ there will still not be sufficient food to allow the penguin population to recover.”

Encouraging strong management to save the penguin‚ the researchers said in a paper published in the Royal Society Journal Biology Letters‚ that even small ‘no-take zones’ can dramatically improve the survival chances of endangered species.

“Our study shows that small no-take zones can aid the survival of African penguin chicks‚ but ultimately commercial fishing controls must be combined with other management action if we are to reverse the dramatic decline of this charismatic species‚” they said. The sombre report stated: “The African penguin population is in freefall‚ with adult survival rates over the last decade desperately low. Although the ban on commercial fishing off Robben Island has boosted chick survival‚ the long term prospect for the species remains gloomy.”

-RDM News Wire


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