When one of South Africa’s worst environmental disasters unfolded 21 years ago, Lauren Waller made her way to the Salt River warehouse in Cape Town, donned rubber gloves and volunteered to help rehabilitate 19 000 oil-soaked African penguins.
It was June 2000 and the MV Treasure, a bulk iron ore carrier, had sunk between two key breeding islands for African penguins, Robben Island in Table Bay and Dassen Island near Cape Town, spilling 400 tonnes of bunker oil into the sea. Now there is a new alarm bell ringing. Endangered African penguins are being pushed to the brink of extinction by food scarcity, oil spills, extreme weather, predation, sub-optimal breeding habitats and disease, according to scientists and various organisations.
The charismatic seabirds, which are slow to breed and long-lived, are “gasping for air”, says Waller, the Leiden conservation fellow for the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob). “They’re fewer birds in the wild today than were affected by the Treasure.” Around 40 000 were affected by the oil spill.
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In the early 1900s, there were three million African penguins inhabiting the islands off the coast of Southern Africa. By 2019, South Africa’s population had dwindled to 13 600 breeding pairs. Alistair McInnes, the seabird conservation programme manager at BirdLife South Africa, says: “The smaller the population gets the more difficult it is to recover.”
The main reason for their rapid decline is the limited availability of their food, say the scientists. Recent shifts in the distribution of sardines and anchovies, the key to the marine food web, have caused a mismatch between penguin breeding when they need more food to feed their chicks, and fish stocks, according to BirdLife International.
Commercial fishing by the small pelagic purse seine fishing sector — when a large net is towed and drawn closed — has left the penguins in competition for food, especially during the breeding season. Penguins forage 20km to a maximum of 40km from their breeding site; foraging further causes unsustainably high-energy expenditure. This means they are unable to feed their chicks regularly.
In 2008, to counter fishing pressure, the department of environmental affairs began a pioneering island closure experiment, alternatively opening and closing four of the largest African penguin breeding colonies — Dassen and Robben islands, St Croix Island, near Gqeberha in Algoa Bay and Bird Island off the shore of Lambert’s Bay — to the pelagic fishing sector for a radius of 20km.
Research led by ecologist Richard Sherley, of the University of Exeter and the University of Cape Town, showed how these small no-fishing zones improved the survival of chicks at Dassen and Robben islands, but there were mixed results for the chicks’ health and development. The main cause of a chick being in poor condition is it has not been fed enough by its parents, says Peter Barham, of the University of Bristol.
Lorien Pichegru, a seabird specialist at Nelson Mandela University, says the research has been “subtle but clear. But it was always disregarded by the fisheries science side. In the meantime, we’ve lost half our penguins.” Waller says: “There’s solid science showing positive benefits for the penguins. Our frustration is that this hasn’t been taken on board by the fisheries department in a satisfactory way and has been contested by the industry.”
The fisheries department did not respond to requests for comment and the South African Pelagic Fishing Industry Association did not want to respond.
A consortium of the World Wildlife Fund South Africa (WWF-SA), Sanccob, the University of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela University have urged Forestry, Fisheries and Environment Minister Barbara Creecy to cease the on-off island closure experiment. Instead, it wants a permanent decision on its recommendation of a minimum of 20km closures around the four colonies in the experiment and for the same 20km closures to be implemented around the colonies at Stony Point in Betty’s Bay and Dyer Island near Gansbaai.
Collectively, these comprise 90% of the penguin breeding population. Waller says the recommendation is for the fishers to “just fish a bit further away, at a fraction of the area available to them”. Other known major threats are being addressed, but the shortage of food hasn’t been. “This population is going down a minimum of 5% percent every year,” says McInnes.
Creecy’s department is “deeply concerned” by the rapidly declining penguin population, says spokesperson Zolile Nqayi. “A central issue thought to be a significant contributor to adult and chick mortality is food availability. “Related to this is the consideration that limiting fishing around colonies has positive benefits for penguins and other seabirds through increased food availability.”
Last month Creecy met BirdLife South Africa, WWF-SA and Sanccob about an internal scientific report she had requested, which will include descriptions of benefits for colonies and “potential negative impacts for the fishing industry”. The South African National Parks is part of a task team set up by Creecy to prevent the extinction of African penguins, says SANParks spokesperson Rey Thakhuli.
“Since 1979, South Africa has lost around 70% of the population, with further steep declines occurring on the West Coast and more recently also on the east coast, particularly at St Croix Island,” he says. “SANParks is hopeful of an outcome that will support the recovery of the population.”
The consortium says estimates of total allowable catches that will be lost for the fishers around Robben and Dassen islands range from 2% to 7% and in Algoa Bay from 6.6% to no associated economic costs.
“However, this shortfall needs to be weighed up against the high socioeconomic value of penguin-based ecotourism and the potential public outcry if no action is taken,” says the consortium. Waller says the penguins are remarkable seabirds and sentinels of the ocean. “They are the proverbial ‘canary in the coal mine’ and, right now, the state of the African penguin indicates we have a real problem.”
Craig Smith, the marine programme manager at WWF-SA, says the crisis facing the penguins is symbolic of a far bigger problem in the fishing sector — sardine stocks are at historic lows. “The industry is not locating the fish anymore and you have penguins and other specialist feeders showing declines in the same period of time. They are all showing similar warning signs that something is not right with the ecosystem.”
Strong lobbying from the fishing sector has focused on job protection, but the “reality is that if South Africa doesn’t manage this fishery well, it will follow Namibia”, whose sardine stocks crashed from overfishing 50 years ago. “If we get the same situation in South Africa, we’re going to lose jobs irrespectively. There’s an alarm bell ringing and we drastically need to take note,” says Smith.
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