The draft African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan (APBMP) released by Environment Minister Barbara Creecy to halt the devastating decline of African penguins is crucial — but not urgent enough. We welcome the intentions of government to submit details of a management plan to reverse the trend in the current drastic decline of African penguins, but it lacks tangible and accountable actions to address well-known key threats to this species.
I have been researching African penguins for almost two decades, have been part of some of the discussions with the fishing industry and am part of a senior scientific team researching the causes of this rapid, severe decline.
We are urging the minister to immediately close the feeding grounds of South Africa’s six colonies (West Coast, False Bay and Algoa Bay) to the sardine or anchovy fishing industry for as long as necessary while the numbers are plummeting.
Her department proposed this very solution a year ago based on a combination of GPS tracking of the penguins’ foraging grounds collected over 10 years, and with knowledge of the industry fishing grounds. The proposal was aimed at maximising protection for the penguins while minimising impacts on the fisheries.
Yet in 2022, all closures for the fishing industry were lifted because the industry objected to the proposal, and, as a result, there is currently no protection whatsoever for the penguins.
Instead of taking action when we are now at the lowest number of African penguins ever recorded in South Africa, the minister has said that the conservation and fishing sectors should come to an agreement. This is not a new suggestion, and certainly not a constructive one. The minister is well aware that these sectors have been trying to reach an agreement for 15 years, without success.
Until recently, the endemic African penguin colony on St Croix island in Algoa Bay was the largest in the world, with 8,500 pairs out of a total of 12,000 pairs in Algoa Bay, including Bird Island and some of the smaller islands. This amounted to 50% of the world’s African penguins. Over the past six years the St Croix population has plummeted by 85%, down to 1,200 pairs.
The fragile penguin populations depend on sardines and anchovies for their diet. Competition for fish stocks is high here, with sardine and anchovy fisheries in Algoa Bay targeting the waters around St Croix as it is the closest source. No-take zones definitely contribute to improving feeding conditions for penguin populations.
From 2008, some of the islands were closed to fishing. In 2010 we published an internationally peer-reviewed article in Biology Letters titled “Marine no-take zone rapidly benefits endangered penguin”, about the benefits of closures. The results of the research were contested by the local fishery scientists who claimed we did not use the right statistics. This is unfounded, our statistics were correct, recognised by the peer-review process of international scientific publication, while the fishery scientists did not publish their claims.
Over the past few years, the penguin population in Algoa Bay has also been affected by four oil spills since 2016, the last one in early May 2022, due to the recent set-up of ship-to-ship bunkering operations in the bay.
The recent and dramatic decline of penguins on St Croix Island has coincided with the initiation and expansion of ship-to-ship bunkering in Algoa Bay. We assessed maritime traffic noise levels before and after the start of bunkering in 2016. The underwater noise levels doubled, making Algo Bay one of the noisiest bays in the world. From 2017, we found many dead birds along Algoa Bay’s beaches.
An article on this research, titled “Maritime traffic trends around the southern tip of Africa — Did marine noise pollution contribute to the local penguins’ collapse?” was published this month in the internationally peer-reviewed journal, Science of the Total Environment.
To further understand the mechanisms of how marine traffic noise may impact penguin’s communication, we have initiated a research project in Algoa Bay where small hydrophones are fitted to African penguins to understand their use of sound on the surface and underwater, including whether they listen for and communicate about their prey. The research is conducted in collaboration with the University of Paris-Saclay, BirdLife South Africa and the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob).
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We’ve also placed larger in situ hydrophones next to the penguin colonies to measure the sounds in the bay, and next to the bunkering as the operators claim their activities do not make much noise.
At the same time as measuring the noise levels and exploring how they impact the ecosystem in the bay, we also have a platform called the Bunkering Environmental Working Group, to discuss issues and solutions between the South African Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) the bunkering authorities, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), SANParks, and a range of conservation organisations, including Sanccob, Bayworld and Wessa. As such, Samsa published the first ever bunkering code in early 2022 to improve protocols for operators.
In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to protect every penguin egg and every chick. Penguins can lay two eggs twice a year and their population can recover over time, but only if substantial and immediate changes are made with regards to their environment, including immediate banning of sardine and anchovy fishing in their feeding grounds and reducing bunkering activities. If Minister Creecy does not step in and implement these measures right now, it will be too late to save the penguins.
Footnote: Penguins and seismic surveys
In 2013 a seismic survey company exploring for oil and gas in the region of Algoa Bay provided me with funding to research the noise impact on the African penguins on St Croix before and after seismic surveys, which took place 100km southwest of the island.
Our research team’s findings were published in Scientific Reports, in an article titled “Avoidance of seismic survey activities by penguins”. We found that the penguins swam in the opposite direction from where they normally foraged when there was seismic activity. We deduced they were avoiding the noise. After the survey operations were terminated, they returned to their foraging grounds.
However, if the company had gone into production (it didn’t because it didn’t find adequate oil and gas resources), there would have been constant noise in the bay, which would have permanently altered noise levels, adversely affecting the penguins and the entire ecosystem. DM