11 August 2014

Study looks at threats to the world's penguins

King penguins.
Photo credit: Pete Bucktrout,
British Antarctic Survey
A major study of all penguin species suggests the birds are at continuing risk from habitat degradation.

Writing in the journal Conservation Biology, a group of internationally renowned scientists recommended that measures are adopted to mitigate against a range of effects, including food scarcity (where fisheries compete for the same resources), being caught in fishing nets, oil pollution and climate change.

These measures could include the establishment of marine protected areas, although the authors acknowledged this might not always be practical. A number of other ecologically based management methods could also be implemented.

Populations of many penguin species have declined substantially over the past two decades. In 2013, eleven species were listed as ‘threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), two as ‘near threatened’ and five as ‘of least concern’.

In order to understand how they might respond to further human impacts on the world’s oceans, the scientists examined all eighteen species, looking at different factors where human activity might interfere with their populations. Forty-nine scientists contributed to the overall process.

They considered all the main issues affecting penguin populations, including habitat degradation on land, marine pollution, fisheries bycatch and resource competition, environmental variability, climate change and toxic algal poisoning and disease. The group concluded that habitat loss, pollution and fishing are still the biggest concerns. The future resilience of penguin populations to climate change impacts will almost certainly depend on addressing current threats to existing habitat degradation on land and at sea.

The scientists recommended that the protection of penguin habitats is crucial for their future survival. This could be in the form of appropriately scaled marine reserves, including some in the High Seas, in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

“Penguins and humans often compete for the same food, and some of our other actions also impinge upon penguins,” said Dr Phil Trathan, Head of Conservation Biology at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the lead author of the study.

“Our research highlights some of the issues of conservation and how we might protect biodiversity and the functioning of marine ecosystems. Whilst it is possible to design and implement large-scale marine conservation reserves it is not always practical or politically feasible.”

“However, there are other ecosystem-based management methods that can help maintain biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem. For example, the use of spatial zoning to reduce the overlap of fisheries, oil rigs and shipping lanes with areas of the ocean used by penguins; the use of appropriate fishing methods to reduce the accidental bycatch of penguins and other species; and, the use of ecologically based fisheries harvesting rules to limit the allowable catches taken by fishermen, particularly where they target species that are also food for penguins.”

The scientists believe their work will be of benefit to other studies of animal species, not just in the southern hemisphere, but the northern one too, where human impacts on the environment is even greater.

Risks to penguin populations analysed [press release], British Antarctic Survey

Conservation Biology citation
Trathan, P. N., García-Borboroglu, P., Boersma, D., Bost, C.-A., Crawford, R. J. M., Crossin, G. T., Cuthbert, R. J., Dann, P., Davis, L. S., De La Puente, S., Ellenberg, U., Lynch, H. J., Mattern, T., Pütz, K., Seddon, P. J., Trivelpiece, W. and Wienecke, B. (2014), Pollution, Habitat Loss, Fishing, and Climate Change as Critical Threats to Penguins. Conservation Biology. doi: 10.1111/cobi.12349

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