Tougher tactics in race against time to save African penguins
● 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.
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.