African penguins have been sliding towards extinction since industrial fishing started around the Cape. The last four years have seen a population crash, leading BirdLife International to change their conservation status to 'Endangered'.
Each year BirdLife International revises the Red List for the bird species of the world. On May 26 they announced that the African penguin has gone from vulnerable to endangered. This assessment is based on rigorous criteria; for the penguin, the population has crashed by more than 50 percent in the past 30 years, signalling a strong warning to conservationists.
BirdLife International report that recent data have revealed that the African penguin is undergoing a very rapid population decline, probably as a result of commercial fisheries and shifts in prey populations. Worryingly, the assessment notes that this trend shows no sign of reversing, and immediate conservation action is required to prevent further declines.
In 1956, the first full census of the species was conducted, and about 150 000 pairs were counted. These were the birds that had survived more than a century of sustained persecution, principally from egg collecting and guano scraping. In 2009, after another decrease (the global population fell another 10 percent from the 2008 count), there were only 26 000 pairs. Those numbers represent a loss of more than 80 percent of the pairs in just over 50 years, equivalent to around 90 birds a week, every week since 1956!
"The colonies around our coast have shrunk to dangerously small numbers." said Dr Ross Wanless, seabird division manager for BirdLife South Africa. "Now the colonies are very vulnerable to small-scale events, such as bad weather, seal predation or seagulls taking eggs. In a large, healthy population these events were trivial. Now, they have potentially serious consequences. We're almost at the point of managing individual birds," he continued.
Dr Rob Crawford, chief scientist for Marine and Coastal Management, the government department responsible for monitoring and protecting seabirds, has worked on the African Penguins for more than 30 years. He said "While it's difficult to prove exactly what has caused the decreases, all the indications are that the penguins are struggling to find enough sardines and anchovies. A huge amount is done to protect penguins from other threats, but the decreases have continued unabated."
Earlier this year, research lead by Dr Lorien Pichegru, from the Percy FitzPatrick Institute at the University of Cape Town, reported on preliminary results from a study on the impacts of closing fishing areas around key penguin breeding islands. Their study suggests that preventing fishing directly around the penguin islands may well provide benefits to the penguins. Marine and Coastal Management has commissioned a team to consider how closures could be implemented to benefit the penguins while minimising the impacts on the fishing industry and fisher's livelihoods.