By Stephen Leahy
Nov 30, 2006 (IPS) – Ice-loving penguins have never been more popular, but few people realise they are threatened with extinction from climate change and industrial fishing.
Of the world’s 19 penguin species, 12 are now so threatened they need special protection, according to the Centre for Biological Diversity (CBD), a California environmental group focused on species extinction.
Popularity doesn’t guarantee survival. But it might increase protection and prompt action on climate change, says Brendan Cummings, director of the CBD’s Oceans Programme.
Cummings’ organisation filed a formal petition this week requesting that 12 species of penguins worldwide, including the well-known Emperor Penguin, be added to the list of threatened and endangered species under the United States Endangered Species Act.
Although there are more than two million pairs of Macroni Penguins left, they are listed in the petition because of a 50 percent population decline in the past 15 years. There are roughly 150,000 to 175,000 pairs of the world’s largest penguin, the Emperor, but that number is far fewer than a few decades ago.
The Emperor Penguin colony at Pointe Geologie, featured in the film “March of the Penguins“, has declined by 70 percent, Cummings told IPS. He blames the decline on fewer krill, a small shrimp-like creature that is its main source of food, the early break-up of ice shelves where chicks are born, and the general changes to its ice and ocean habitat due to a warmer Antarctic.
Penguins are only found in the Southern Hemisphere. The U.S. Endangered Species Act could prevent U.S. vessels from fishing for krill and might force the federal government to take stronger action on its emissions of greenhouse gases, he said.
Krill are the keystone species of the Antarctic marine ecosystem. An essential food source not just for penguins but also for whales and seals, krill have declined by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s in some parts of the Southern Ocean, he said.
Industrial fishing boats have recently turned their attention to the great Southern Ocean to catch krill for the fast-growing trade to supply krill as fish meal for farmed salmon, says Clif Curtis, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Antarctic Krill Conservation Project.
“Krill are not overfished at present, but there are worrying trends,” Curtis told IPS. [Update Nov 14 2008: Little progress controlling Krill Fishery]
There are also new fishing technologies being developed that will literally allow krill to be vacuumed up even when they are deep in the water column. One such Norwegian ship has been proposed that could catch 120,000 tonnes of krill in a season, he said.
This and other ships would likely supply the booming health food and pharmaceutical markets. Krill are rich in omega-3 three fatty acids, which are believed to prevent heart disease and inflammatory conditions such as arthritis.
At the same time, climate change is reducing the sea ice cover which is home to phytoplankton that krill feeds on, he said.
The krill fishery is “laxly regulated”, says Curtis. His organisation has appealed to the 24-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to adopt monitoring, control and surveillance measures that other fisheries operating in the Southern Ocean already use.