Off the South African coast are some of the most productive bodies of water in the world. There is a wide variety of biodiversity in the waters, including dolphins, whales, sharks, as well as sea birds such as albatrosses and petrels. Many of these birds are increasingly threatened by human activities such as fishing, oil pollution and development, and climate change.
This is the case with the African penguin Spheniscus demersus, also known as the Cape penguin, which is only found on the southwestern tip of Africa in South Africa and Namibia. In contrast to other penguins, this species defies the cold climate trend and survives at temperatures of over 30 ° C.
In the past few decades, the population of African penguins has declined dramatically. The number of African penguins, which once numbered around 1.5 to 3 million people, dropped to 300,000 by 1956, and the number continued to decline. “Last year there were fewer than 13,000 couples in South Africa,” emphasizes Dr. Alistair McInnes, Manager of the Seabird Conservation Program at BirdLife South Africa (BirdLife Partner). At only 1% the size of its population in the 1900s, the species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List. According to a 2018 study, African penguins would be extinct on the west coast of South Africa by 2035 if the current patterns were maintained.
African penguin, copyright Sam Woods, from the Surfbirds Galleries
In addition to egg collection and guano harvesting for fertilizers, the decreased availability of foods of this type, mainly anchovies and sardines, has led to this massive population decline. Decades of overfishing have depleted fish stocks and threatened the survival of African penguins. Growing penguin chicks need a diet high in lipids – something that sardines and anchovies offer. As if the conditions weren’t bad enough for the penguins, research suggests that seabird chicks fed low-quality junk food may develop more slowly and have decreased cognitive abilities, making it difficult for young birds to find food as soon as they have fled.
African penguins generally breed on islands where they are protected from predators. Due to shifts in the distribution of their prey, there is now a mismatch between the penguin breeding islands and fish stocks, as breeding penguins can hunt no more than 40 km from the breeding nest if they are to feed their young on a regular basis. “Between Dyer Island and Port Elizabeth there is a 600 km stretch of coastline with no islands and therefore no breeding penguins, effectively dividing the South African population in two,” explains Dr. Alistair McInnes. To counteract this situation, BirdLife South Africa is investigating ways of creating new penguin colonies on a section of the south coast of South Africa that has no offshore islands but is rich in fish.
The aim is to create resilience in the penguin population by increasing the number of colonies, to bridge the gap between the western and eastern populations and to enable penguins to breed in a region with healthy prey supplies. “In collaboration with CapeNature and other penguin experts, we have identified the De Hoop nature reserve on the south coast, 300 km east of Cape Town, as a suitable starting point,” explains Dr. Alistair McInne.
Previous attempts at breeding penguins were unsuccessful due to predators, resulting in the abandonment of the colonies. To prevent this from happening, BirdLife South Africa installed a predator-proof fence that was developed in collaboration with a wildlife fence expert along the property. The site has also been equipped with a remote monitoring system with cameras that will send alerts to project staff when a predator movement is detected.
Because penguins breed in colonies, they are less likely to move to a new location where penguins are not already breeding. Consequently, BirdLife South Africa uses decoys and plays penguin calls to attract birds from the sea. BirdLife South Africa is also planning to release young penguins from the hoop to encourage them to return and breed. As soon as penguins breed in a colony, they return there annually – a trait that helps them find the same mate again. It is to be hoped that these strategies will help penguins colonize Hoop and thus increase the population.
Cooperations are crucial to promote the protection of penguins. To this end, the Coastal Seabird Team at BirdLife South Africa is working with the government and the fishing industry to advocate an ecosystem approach to fisheries management (EAF) that integrates ecosystem and socio-economic concerns into the framework of fisheries management, rather than the conventional approach centered around a single species.
An example of this approach is the African penguin island closure experiment, BirdLife South Africa has been working closely with other NGOs, seabird scientists, and the government since 2009 to assess the impact of closure of purse seiners in four of the largest breeding colonies for African penguins, the results of this study will be Used by state fisheries management to decide to limit resource competition in sensitive penguin habitats.
In addition, the Coastal Seabird team is working on various approaches that incorporate ecosystem concerns into the way catch limits are set for sardines and anchovies – important prey species for three of the four most threatened coastal bird species in South Africa
To understand the food distribution of African penguins, the team identified areas where breeding penguins forage. In addition, non-breeding African penguins from large colonies such as Dassen Island, Stony Point and Bird Island have been tracked since 2012. BirdLife South Africa is currently in the process of analyzing this, which will be crucial in assessing the expansion of the Marina Protected Area.
The African penguin faces an uncertain future, but by bringing penguins closer to their food and trying to make sure there are more fish in the ocean, it is hoped their populations will flourish again.