Penguin breeding collapses prompt calls for more protection

For the second time in four years, a large breeding colony of penguins on Antarctica has collapsed, raising the need for more wildlife protection as well as action to curb climate change, scientists say.

In January, the 18,000 pairs of Adelie penguins near France’s Dumont d’Urville research station produced just two surviving chicks for the season. The penguins typically lay two eggs per pair.

Four years earlier, about 20,200 pairs produced no surviving chicks at all, said WWF and researchers, including Yan Ropert-Coudert at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research.

“Adelie penguins are one of the hardiest and most amazing animals on our planet,” Rod Downie, head of WWF’s polar programs, said in a statement.

“This devastating event contrasts with the image that many people might have of penguins,” he said.

“It’s more like ‘Quentin Tarantino does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adelie Land,” he said referring to the director of Pulp Fiction and the Hollywood animated blockbuster about penguins.

Dr Ropert-Coudert said unusual shifts in sea-ice cover appear to be the main cause of both breeding collapses.

“Meteorological factors – driven by large-scale climate changes – that are behind the massive failure are out of the norm, at least from what we know of the normal speed of changes in the past,” he told Fairfax Media.

In the first instance, the season began with the largest sea ice extent measured in the satellite era, while in the second period, the sea ice was unusually constant through the season. In both instances, adult penguins had to travel further to forage, leaving their chicks to starve.

Climate change appears to be affecting many other species, including shy albatrosses, which are having to fly further to feed. Increased intensity of rain events also appears to be affecting the integrity of their nests, prompting groups including the WWF to intervene by supplying more rigid nests for the birds.

For the Adelie penguins, environmental groups are hoping the attention to the breeding failures will spur greater protection of the waters off East Antarctica, when delegates from 25 nations and the European Union meet in Hobart next week.

A proposal for a new marine protected area (MPA) is on the agenda of the meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

Such a new zone “would not prevent massive failure events like these but they would protect the species and their resources from further anthropogenic impacts that could superimpose on [them]”, Dr Ropert-Coudert said.

Adelie penguins – named in 1840 by French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville after his wife, Adele – are generally faring well in East Antarctica but are in decline in the Antarctic Peninsula. The peninsula has had some of the most rapid increases in temperatures from global warming anywhere on the planet.

WWF said expectations were high that next week’s gathering would support the creation of the new MPA. The plan is backed by and France with the EU, and has been discussed by the commission for eight years.

The proposal originally comprised seven large marine areas off the coast of East Antarctica but was later cut to four. WWF said it was likely only three of those areas – MacRobertson, Drygalski, and the D’Urville Sea-Mertz region, where the Petrel Island Adelie colony is located – will be adopted this year.

Last year, the commission adopted the Ross Sea MPA, the largest protected area in the world. (See map below.)

Setting aside the D’Urville Sea Mertz region as off limits to krill fisheries will be particularly important for protecting the foraging and breeding grounds of the Adelie penguins, WWF said.

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