Current state of affairs
By global standards, a population is considered unhealthy and in danger if it decreases to 10% of the former (pre-exploitation/decrease) levels. The African Penguin population is currently at about 14% its 1950s level, when the first official census was conducted and is still on a strong downward population trajectory.
About 100 years ago the colony at Dassen Island alone, already subject to huge egg harvesting pressures and other disturbance, stood at ~1 million pairs. In 2011, around 4 000 pairs bred there. That amounts to a loss of over 10 000 pairs per year! Globally there are fewer than 25 000 pairs – essentially the loose change from the estimates of a century ago. In 2014 the South African population was about 19 000 pairs, while Namibia has only about 5 000 pairs. This means that the current global population is just 3% of the estimate from the Dassen Island colony in the 1920s!
In 2010, the African Penguin was 'uplisted' from Vulnerable to Endangered by BirdLife International. It is on a strong, downward population trajectory.
The collapse is largely driven by human activities. First egg-collecting and guano scraping caused enormous losses. Then overfishing in the 1960s continued to cause decreases. Now some populations are so small they’re vulnerable to relatively minor events, such as seals preying on adults, gulls taking eggs, or extreme weather causing breeding failure.
A population decreases when mortality exceeds recruitment. Attempts to increase recruitment of African Penguins have included maintenance and improvement of nesting habitat, and captive rearing and release of orphaned wild chicks. Attempts to decrease mortality include eradicating invasive predators, reducing predation by natural predators (e.g. seals) around colonies, rehabilitation and release of oiled and injured penguins, and disease control.
By far the biggest concern is, quite simply, a lack of food. Penguins eat mainly sardines and anchovies, which are also the target of the commercial purse-seine fishing industry. However, the role fishing has played in the decrease is hotly debated. In the mid-1990s the distribution of the sardines and anchovies shifted from the west coast of South Africa to the south coast believed to be due to climate change and high fishing pressure on the west coast. While this shift has almost certainly contributed to the population decrease, the colonies on the south coast, which supposedly should have benefited from the shift, have continued to decrease in numbers.
Protecting species of no tradeable commercial value may seem a luxury. But the African Penguins are our marine sentinel, our ‘canary in the coal mine’ for ecosystem health. They play the role of an early warning signal for environmental threats. The African Penguin eats almost nothing but small pelagic fish (sardine and anchovy), so when penguin numbers are in a steep decline, it means that there are not enough small pelagic fish to go around. Such changes impact negatively on the entire ecosystem, not just the penguins, because everything else in the ecosystem relies, either directly or indirectly, on the small pelagic fish. Effectively managing our ecosystems is vital for our rich marine biodiversity, from the hake and yellowtail fish that eat the small pelagics, to the sharks and tuna that eat those fish, to penguins, seals, dolphins, and whales – all of which are dependent on there being sufficient little fish at the base of the chain. It is also critical to the job creation and business opportunities created through the commercial fisheries that sustain local communities and drive our economy.
The decline of African Penguins tells us that the marine ecosystem is undergoing massive change, and those changes may well result in a system that produces less food in the future, or one that cannot support penguins, gannets, seals and dolphins. We get a significant proportion of our daily protein from the sea – either directly through eating fish, or indirectly through eating things that have been fed fishmeal, or that are fertilized with marine products. Jobs and food security are an enormous concern for everyone. Our national economy would shrink by approximately 6% if we lost all our fisheries.
Significant funding has been received from the African Penguin Species Champion, the Charl van der Merwe Trust, and Pamela Isdell, a patron of the African Penguin to ensure that critical interventions can be made. The projects we are involved with work towards our major goal: incorporating the needs of penguins (and other predators) into fishery management. This is known as the Ecosystem Approach to Fisheries (EAF).
Policy level: Fishing quotas are set without taking the distribution of fish into account and this may affect the availability of fish for penguins. We are working with government and fisheries to change the way the fishing quotas are given, so that they take into account the fact that the distribution of fish is not uniform around the coast.
Island closures project: As part of a broader initiative, BirdLife South Africa funded researcher, Dr. Lorien Pichegru to examine the effects of banning fishing around penguin breeding islands. Preliminary results show that creating a 20 km fishing exclusion zone around a colony means that during the energetically demanding breeding season penguins don't have to swim as far as to find food.
Satellite tracking: Penguins need to “fatten up” before moulting in order to survive two weeks of moult when they replace all their feathers and cannot forage for food. Penguins also face a crucial period after moulting as the hungry and thin penguins must find enough food to replace the energy reserves lost during moult. Very little, however, is known about where penguins go during these pre- and post-moult periods and what threats they may be facing at sea. Satellite trackers and GPS loggers are attached to penguins during these periods to learn more about their non-breeding foraging ecology. Read more
Establishment of a new colony: African Penguins breed mainly on islands where they are safe from terrestrial, mammalian predators. Mainland colonies such as Boulders Beach and Stony Point survive because the towns around them create barriers, restricting predators' access to the colonies. Between Gansbaai and Port Elizabeth there lies 600 kms of coast where there are no islands, and therefore no breeding penguins, effectively splitting the population in two. BirdLife South Africa has received funding from African Penguin patron Pamela Isdell and is investigating options for creating a new penguin colony on the south coast mainland, which will be protected from predators. This colony will represent an 'insurance policy' for the penguin population. If another large oil spill occurs on the west coast or climate change causes the fish distribution to shift again, we could lose large numbers of penguins in these two widely distant population centres. BirdLife South Africa is driving the process of investigating potential sites and methods to use in establishing a new colony.
Transponder project: As part of a broader initiative, BirdLife is providing support for a project aimed at micro-chipping penguins to gather data on penguin population survival and movement patterns. For more information on the new colony, please contact Christina Hagen. For information on the other African Penguin projects, please contact Dr Taryn Morris.
None of our African Penguin Conservation work would be possible without the contributions from many people and organisations. Taryn Morris’s position as the Coastal Seabird Conservation Manager and Adri Meyer’s internship are funded by the Charl van der Merwe Trust (which also funds our work with the fishing industry and the tracking project). Christina Hagen’s position as the Pamela Isdell Fellow of Penguin Conservation and the new colony work are funded by Pamela Isdell. The Diemersfontein Wine Estate also supports our penguin conservation work through the sale of For the Birds! red and white wines.