- With just 10,000 breeding pairs left, the endangered African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) could be extinct in the wild by 2035 if the current rate of population decline continues.
- To protect the bird’s food supply and slow its population collapse, South Africa is throwing a protective no-fishing cordon around its main breeding colonies for a period of 10 years.
- But the devil is in the details, and conservationists say the cordons are too small to ensure the penguins get enough fish.
- Negotiations over whether to adjust the cordons are continuing in advance of an early 2024 deadline.
CAPE TOWN — The endangered African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) could be extinct in the wild in just over a decade. To protect the bird’s food supply and slow its population collapse, South Africa is throwing a protective no-fishing cordon around its main breeding colonies. But the devil is in the details, and conservationists say time is running out to get the policy up to scratch before an early 2024 deadline.
South African seabird conservationists have had to launch a number of rescue operations in recent years, collecting thousands of starving African penguin, Cape gannet (Morus capensis) and Cape cormorant (Phalacrocorax capensis) chicks from key breeding colonies after they were abandoned by hungry parents. These rescues, conservationists say, show the extent to which the birds’ main food source, anchovies (Engraulis encrasicolus) and sardines (Sardinops sagax), is disappearing from their foraging ranges.
Dwindling food is one of the main threats — but hardly the only one — driving a crash in African penguin numbers in the past three decades. Africa’s only endemic penguin has declined by nearly three-quarters since 1991, according to a 2021 census. About 10,000 breeding pairs are left today, compared with more than 1 million a century ago, and the species will be functionally extinct by 2035 if the current rate of population decline (currently at 8% per year) continues, according to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), whose estimates are based on ongoing population monitoring.
The birds are losing food as they compete with commercial purse-seine fishing, and as small pelagic fish stocks plummet in response to changing ocean conditions as carbon pollution drives up global air and ocean temperatures.
To address this threat, DFFE, South Africa’s environment ministry, announced Aug. 4 that it will close off the penguin’s core foraging ranges around the country’s most important breeding colonies to purse seine fishing for a period of 10 years, beginning Jan. 15, 2024.
The closures will be year-round, rather than for set seasons as the fishing industry initially requested. This aims to allow adults adequate feeding time before and after their annual three-week molting period, during which they must survive off fat stores since they can’t head to sea to feed. It will also allow parents to forage for their chicks throughout the year: While the species’ breeding season peaks between March and May, many pairs breed outside of this window, particularly if they have a second clutch of eggs.
However, seabird conservationists are concerned that the proposed demarcation lines don’t extend far enough to secure the necessary foraging ranges for the birds.
Closures: ‘Not sufficient’ but may be locked in from 2024
The minister, Barbara Creecy, has been overseeing a consultation process in which seabird conservationists and the fishing industry hoped to reach an agreement on the details of the proposed closures, but this drawn-out process became deadlocked.
With time fast running out for the penguins, in September 2022 Creecy implemented temporary fishing closures around the six most important breeding colonies, based on areas demarcated by her department’s internal scientists. These colonies stretch along the country’s southern coast roughly from Cape Town to the port city of Gqeberha: Dassen Island, Robben Island, Stony Point, Dyer Island, St. Croix Island and Bird Island. The footprint of each interim closure is specific to the conditions of individual colonies.
In December 2022, the minister then appointed an independent panel of international experts to break the impasse between the fishing industry and conservation bodies, and briefed the panel to weigh the potential benefits of the closures for penguin conservation against the likely costs for the commercial fishing industry.
In its July 2023 report, the expert panel recommended that any closures continue year-round and that they remain in place for six to 10 years so ongoing population monitoring can measure the impact on bird recovery. In response, Creecy announced Aug. 4 that the closures will remain in effect from early 2024 through the end of 2033 (with a review in 2030) — unless the various stakeholders agree to amend them prior to the Jan. 15 start.
“But those lines are not good,” Alistair McInnes, seabird conservation program manager for the nonprofit BirdLife South Africa, told Mongabay. “In some instances they are less than half the core [foraging] areas, so it’s very unlikely that they will be effective.”
BirdLife South Africa is one of several conservation groups working with the government and fishing industry to hammer out the details of the closures.
The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), another nonprofit working on this conservation measure alongside BirdLife South Africa, WWF South Africa and the Endangered Wildlife Trust, agrees that the proposed closure lines need more work. The groups share a sense of urgency to negotiate enlarged footprints before January.
“The current closures are not sufficient in our opinion,” SANCCOB research manager Katrin Ludynia told Mongabay.
Death by a dozen cuts
Many compounding threats have added to the penguin’s declining numbers in recent decades. Loss of breeding sites along the Namibian and South African coastlines was one of the first, particularly as fertilizer harvesting scraped island colonies clean of the centuries-old guano layers into which birds burrowed to build their nests.
More recently, increasing oil spills, the spread of avian flu, predation by feral cats and domestic pets and extreme weather events damaging exposed nests have added to penguin declines. Conservationists have also identified a dramatic localized threat from the noise pollution relating to ship fuel bunkering in Algoa Bay off Gqeberha. The area is a hub for marine traffic but also home to two of the most heavily impacted breeding sites, the St. Croix and Bird Island colonies.
The fishing closure policy is not a silver bullet, according to the environment ministry, the expert panel and conservationists, and it is just one of several measures necessary to secure the penguin’s survival. And with a 10-year window to avoid extinction closing fast, conservationists warn that any further delays in drawing up and implementing appropriate conservation policy could have a catastrophic outcome for the African penguin.
Banner image: The endangered African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) could be extinct in the wild in just over a decade. Image by Pam Ivey via Unsplash (Public domain).
Sherley R. B., Crawford R. J. M., Dyer B. M., Hagen C., Upfold L., McInnes A., Masotla M. J. (2021). Updated population trajectories and conservation status of the African penguin in South Africa following the 2021 census. Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Report FISHERIES/2021/JUL/SWG-PEL/46. Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment. 6pp. Available: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/24036454-fisheries_2021_jul_swg-pel_46-update-on-ap-pop-trajectory?responsive=1&title=1
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