Penguins facing extinction

19 February 2013 - 02:14 By MHLABUNZIMA MEMELA
African penguins on the Cape coast could be driven into extinction due to overfishing, marine biologists have warned
African penguins on the Cape coast could be driven into extinction due to overfishing, marine biologists have warned

Endangered African penguins on the Cape coast could become extinct in the next 15 years.

Leading marine biologist Dr Lorien Pichegru, from the Percy Fitzgerald Institute of African Ornithology, yesterday said the penguin population has dropped by at least 70% since 2004 due to the ongoing competition with commercial fishermen for sardines and anchovies.

Globally, the African penguin population has shrunk from two million pairs to 26000 pairs.

Pichegru's tracking device has shown that overfishing close to Algoa Bay off Port Elizabeth is forcing penguins to swim further to catch food.

"They do not breed when they do this. The penguins can travel up to 50km from their colonies when they have a chick to look for food to feed it, but usually remain within 20km.

"Both fishermen and penguins are struggling because the fish population is also declining. It is very worrying," said Pichegru.

Ninety percent of the penguin population was lost when 19th-century and 20th-century traders sold vast amounts of guano and eggs.

There has since been a loss of 70% since 2004 due to limited fish availability.

Pichegru said there are "complicated cycles" when sardine and anchovy populations also remain at very low levels for a few years.

"We are in such a cycle at present. Penguins, but also other seabirds such as Cape gannets and Cape cormorants also endemic to Southern Africa, suffer dramatically," she said.

Pichegru explained that, during such periods, local competition with industrial fishing threatens penguin populations.

"At present, every effort possible is made to save penguins.

"We built artificial burrows for them on their islands to protect them from heat waves or storms that can kill their chicks," Pichegru said, adding that starving chicks are moved to a rehabilitation centre.

uShaka Sea World marine biologist Ann Kunz agreed with Pichegru's findings.

She said last year's census noted a further decline of more than 1000 pairs of penguins.

"Their numbers continue to go down due to a number of factors. Overfishing is a huge concern. Anchovy fishing in South Africa is mainly for fish meal and not direct human consumption.

"Other concerns include climate change, habitat destruction, plastic pollution and oil pollution."

Kunz said South Africans could help save the penguins by simply reducing marine pollution.

"We have an initiative called Penguin Promises which gives public updates on the status of the African Penguin as well as a platform to pledge support, not financial support, just support by changes in lifestyles."