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Penguins on a Slippery Slope

A major study of all of the world’s different penguin species suggests that they are at continuing risk from habitat degradation.

The report, published in Conservation Biology, recommends the establishment of more marine protected areas to help mitigate against a range of hazards including food scarcity where fisheries compete for the same resources, being caught in fishing nets, oil pollution and climate change.

Populations of many penguin species have declined substantially over the past two decades. In 2013, 11 species were listed as “threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 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, an international team of 49 scientists examined all 18 species by looking at different factors where human activity might interfere with their populations.

They considered all the main factors affecting penguin populations, including terrestrial habitat degradation, marine pollution, fisheries bycatch and resource competition, environmental variability, climate change and toxic algal poisoning and disease.

The researchers conclude that habitat loss, pollution and fishing remain the primary concerns, and contend that the future resilience of penguin populations to climate change impacts will depend on addressing current threats to existing habitat degradation on land and at sea.

The report recommends 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 jurisdictions.

“Whilst it is possible to design and implement large-scale marine conservation reserves it is not always practical or politically feasible, said the lead author of the study, Dr Phil Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey.

“However, there are other ecosystem-based management methods that can help maintain biodiversity and a healthy ecosystem”. Trathan suggested “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 by-catch 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”.