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Astute ocean management is needed as African penguins hurtle towards functional extinction


Professor Lorien Pichegru is Director of the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research at Nelson Mandela University.

We are doing everything we can to protect every penguin egg and every chick. Their population can recover over time, but only if substantial and immediate changes are made with regards to their environment.

Temporary closures to the sardine and anchovy fishing industry announced by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) around the feeding grounds of South Africa’s six African penguin colonies will achieve little to nothing to halt the 90% plummet of the penguin population.

The closures, from 1 September 2022 to 14 January 2023, come too late because the small pelagic fishing season is mostly over for the year, and so is the penguin breeding season.

This has dire implications as the African penguin is hurtling towards becoming functionally extinct in the wild, which happens when the population reaches such a low level that it cannot recover – and we are perilously close to this.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Restrictions placed on commercial fishing close to endangered African penguin colonies

In collaboration with leading conservation organisations such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), WWF, Sanccob and BirdLife South Africa, marine scientists have been urging the minister over several years to close the feeding grounds of South Africa’s six colonies (West Coast, South Coast and Algoa Bay) to the sardine or anchovy fishing industry for as long as necessary while the numbers are plummeting.

As emphasised by the four organisations in a joint statement on 28 September, during the breeding season (mostly between March and August), African penguins can only forage close to their colonies – within 20km to 40km.

“Failing to meet the high energy requirements of rearing chicks results in poor chick condition, chick deaths, the abandonment of the chicks and a failed breeding attempt. In the worst-case scenario, this could lead to the starvation of adult penguins and ultimately death,” they said.   

This is occurring at a devastating rate. 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 to 1,200 pairs.

Read in Daily Maverick: “Shocking drop in number of African penguin numbers for Algoa Bay

The fragile penguin populations depend on sardines and anchovies for their diet. Competition for the fish stocks is high here, with sardine and anchovy fisheries in Algoa Bay targeting the waters around St Croix since it is the closest source from Port Elizabeth harbour.

The statement from the DFFE reads: “The closures will be temporary to allow for an international scientific panel to be set up to review all related science output over recent years. The review will advise the Department on the value of fishing limitations for penguins’ success, as well as the impacts such limitations will have on the fishing industry.”

The science is, however, well established and internationally peer-reviewed research on this has been widely available for more than a decade. No-take zones definitely contribute to improving feeding conditions for penguin populations. I have been researching African penguins for almost two decades, and am part of a senior scientific team researching the causes of this rapid, severe decline and how to address it.

In 2010 already my co-authors and I published an article in Biology Letters titledMarine no-take zone rapidly benefits endangered penguins”. Other scientists have repeatedly published about the benefits of closures to penguins.

Heed the research

The fisheries industry routinely disputes the scientists’ statistics, but to date they have not published their statistics on how closures around penguin colonies affect their income. None of their statements has ever been peer-reviewed by the scientific community, against good scientific practice.

Minister Barbara Creecy is well aware that the fishing, scientific and conservation sectors have been trying to reach an agreement for 15 years, without success. The African penguin crisis calls for the minister to heed the existing, internationally recognised scientific research. Her call for an international scientific panel will simply cause further delay and we do not have such time.

In 2021, Cabinet proposed closures around the six major African penguin colonies to help the populations revive, based on best science, but it was refused by the fishing industries. This led to a second proposal by the Consultative Advisory Forum which reduced the size of the closures to areas no longer meaningful for the penguin population. This proposal was refused by both the conservation and fishing sectors.

As a result, no fishing closures at all were in place in 2022, although numbers of breeding African penguins were at their lowest levels yet recorded. Perhaps yet another international panel may help, however I urge the minister to revert to her initial proposal. Meaningful interventions right now are crucial for their survival.

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 immediately banning sardine and anchovy fishing in their feeding grounds and reducing fuel-bunkering activities.

Ship-to-ship bunkering operations started in Algoa Bay in 2016, which caused four oil spills that affected the penguins, the last one in early May 2022. In addition, marine traffic noise seems to negatively impact penguins. Noise in Algoa Bay has doubled since the initiation of bunkering and the St Croix populations plummeted further.

On a positive note, earlier this year the South African Maritime Safety Authority published the first bunkering code to date, aiming to improve protocols for operators, which we applaud.

What the African penguin and many other marine living resource examples indicate is the urgent need for broader ocean management, which will be addressed at the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association’s (Wiomsa) Scientific Symposium in Nelson Mandela Bay from 10 to 15 October 2022.

This international symposium will help to guide international policies and improve management of our oceans, with a specific focus on the Western Indian Ocean, which extends from South Africa all the way up the east coast of Africa.

Together with Wiomsa and the Sustainable Seas Trust, in my role as director of the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research at Nelson Mandela University, I am helping to organise this very large conference of 800 delegates from a wide range of countries, including South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, Sweden, France, Germany and Portugal.

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There are very few international conferences of this size on our doorstep and it is an invaluable opportunity to share knowledge and experience from our countries and universities. Marine and maritime research is one of Nelson Mandela University’s strategic focus areas and the special sessions of the symposium will take place at our Ocean Sciences Campus on Friday, 14 October. One of our transdisciplinary programmes on which we’ll be presenting is Marine Spatial Planning (MSP), in which social, legal, economic and ecological research come together to contribute to sustainable ocean management.

South Africa’s MSP Act was gazetted in 2021. The country’s first MSP is for Algoa Bay and will be ready before the end of 2022, put together by a transdisciplinary team at the Institute for Coastal and Marine Research (CMR).

Read in Daily Maverick: “Dwindling African penguin colonies – what needs to happen to restore the balance

Essentially, it’s a layered map that can accommodate the many role players in the marine environment, including commercial and small-scale fisheries, shipping, tourism, marine protected areas, wildlife, ecosystem services, the navy and industry. MSP allocates the different sectors to zones with the aim of achieving ecological, economical and societal sustainability objectives.

The CMR team works closely with the government while the national MSP process is happening for the four marine areas along South Africa’s coastline: western, southern, eastern and the Prince Edward Islands. Algoa Bay is in the southern marine area and its MSP is intended to inform the upscaling of the whole southern area.

MSP programmes are the crucial background for a meaningful marine protected area network in South Africa, which has to increase from the current 5% of our exclusive economic zone, to 30% by 2030 to align with international standards. This is per the recommendations of the Convention on Biological Diversity at COP15 in 2020, to which 95 nations agreed, including South Africa. Such a network would also help to limit the impacts of climate change. 

It’s an essential way forward for the sustainable use of our marine environment where economic gain or development has to be done without compromising the environment.

This is non-negotiable because the ecosystem services the oceans deliver are essential for our survival. DM


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