Tougher tac­tics in race against time to save African pen­guins

Sunday Times - - News | Society - By MAG­GIE CON­NOLLY and KIM­BERLY WIPFLER

● The African pen­guin is fac­ing its worst cri­sis yet.

On the west coast, pen­guins could be “func­tion­ally ex­tinct” in just 15 years, ac­cord­ing to a new gov­ern­ment plan to save the iconic species.

The doc­u­ment, gazetted by en­vi­ron­ment, forestry & fish­eries min­is­ter Bar­bara Creecy, ad­mits the pre­vi­ous plan failed to ar­rest the pop­u­la­tion de­cline.

Be­tween 2013 and 2018, when it was in force, pen­guin num­bers dropped by 21% to just 15,000 breed­ing pairs. In 2004 there were 50,000 pairs in SA’s three main pop­u­la­tions: the west coast, be­tween Cape Point and Cape Agul­has, and east of Cape Agul­has.

Sci­en­tists say the rate of de­cline in pen­guins is out­strip­ping the col­lapse of rhino pop­u­la­tions. Creecy’s plan to save the birds tar­gets a 5% pop­u­la­tion in­crease by 2024.

With­out suc­cess­ful in­ter­ven­tions, “it is pre­dicted that the fu­ture pop­u­la­tion along the west coast of South Africa will con­tinue to un­dergo rapid re­duc­tion and could be func­tion­ally ex­tinct by 2035”, the plan says.

The re­port iden­ti­fies food short­ages and cli­mate change as the great­est threats to the birds. Among its key pro­pos­als is a fish­ing ban near pen­guin colonies for cer­tain pe­ri­ods of the year.

“Many of the re­cent pop­u­la­tion de­clines of African pen­guins have re­sulted from food short­ages caused by shifts in the dis­tri­bu­tions of prey species and com­pe­ti­tion with com­mer­cial purse-seine fish­eries for food,” the re­port says.

“There was an east­ward shift in the dis­tri­bu­tion of sar­dine and an­chovy. The abun­dance of these prey species is known to in­flu­ence breed­ing suc­cess, adult sur­vival and ju­ve­nile sur­vival of African pen­guins, all of which may of­ten be too low off South Africa’s west coast to main­tain pop­u­la­tion equi­lib­rium.”

The plan sug­gests 14 in­ter­ven­tions that will be de­signed and im­ple­mented by work­ing groups that in­clude aca­demics, NGOs, gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and the fish­ing in­dus­try.

BirdLife SA pen­gui­nol­o­gist Christina Ha­gen, who was part of the team that drew up the plan, said it was stronger than the 2013 ver­sion and main­tained a num­ber of the steer­ing groups that had been lay­ing im­por­tant ground­work for five years.

“I think that is go­ing to be one of the key things for the plan: bring­ing peo­ple to­gether to work to­wards a com­mon goal,” she said.

A drop in pen­guin num­bers has im­pli­ca­tions be­yond sur­vival of the species. Creecy’s new bio­di­ver­sity man­age­ment plan says the pen­guin colony at Boul­ders in Si­mon’s Town — one of Cape Town’s most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions — sup­ports 885 jobs and gen­er­ates in­come of more than R200m a year.

The loss of the pen­guin pop­u­la­tion also poses a threat to other seabird pop­u­la­tions and to the ma­rine ecosys­tem as a whole.

Pen­guins are re­garded as near-apex ma­rine preda­tors and their feed­ing habits— which in­volve herd­ing small fish to shal­low waters — pro­vide other birds with the op­por­tu­nity to feed.

“If we give up on pen­guins we might as well give up on ev­ery­thing else,” said Katta Lu­dy­nia, re­search man­ager at the South­ern African Foun­da­tion for the Con­ser­va­tion of Coastal Birds (Sanc­cob).

Pro­pos­als to re­strict fish­ing around colonies fol­low a trial at St Croix Is­land in Al­goa Bay, which sci­en­tists said im­proved pen­guins’ health and sur­vival rates. The re­sults have been con­tro­ver­sial among some stake­hold­ers in the fish­ing in­dus­try.

When lo­cal fish stocks are low, re­search has found, adults and chicks risk star­va­tion. The re­port notes that the pro­pos­als to re­strict fish­ing may have an im­pact on the purs­e­seine in­dus­try, but the to­tal al­low­able catch would be un­changed.

The plan is open for pub­lic com­ment un­til mid-Novem­ber.

Pic­tures: Esa Alexan­der

An African pen­guin chick seems to share a smile with France van Wyk at the Sanc­cob con­ser­va­tion cen­tre in Cape Town. The pen­guin pop­u­la­tion is de­clin­ing fast in the face of threats in­clud­ing food short­ages and cli­mate change.

Vol­un­teers at Sanc­cob, which res­cues, re­ha­bil­i­tates and re­leases ill, in­jured, aban­doned and oiled seabirds.

Shifts in prey species and com­pe­ti­tion from com­mer­cial fish­ing have dis­rupted food sup­plies.

Nina Bienewald cra­dles a pa­tient at the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­tre.

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