Penguin catastrophe: only two chicks survive, thousands dead, in East Antarctica

‘It’s like Tarantino Does Happy Feet, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land’

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 October, 2017, 9:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:49am

Only two Adélie penguin chicks from a colony of more than 18,000 breeding pairs survived last summer in the Antarctic due to unusually extensive sea ice, prompting environmental campaigners to call for a new marine protected area.

The penguins in Terre Adélie in East Antarctica, which only reproduce on ice-free land, suffered a catastrophic breeding season after unseasonably large sea ice growth forced parents to travel further for food, causing their chicks to starve by the thousands.

In the wake of the breeding catastrophe, which occurred in January, WWF has called for greater protection for the waters off East Antarctica to ensure penguins do not face added pressure of competition from fishing fleets for their main food source of krill.

The Adélie is the most common type of penguin in Antarctica where their population is increasing, but Adélie populations have fallen by more than 65 oer cent in the past 25 years in areas where climate change is established, according to WWF.

The same colony failed to produce a single chick four years ago when heavy sea ice combined with unusually warm weather and rain, followed by a drop in temperature. That left many chicks saturated and freezing to death.

Rod Downie, the WWF head of polar programmes, said: “Adélie penguins are one of the hardiest and most amazing animals on our planet. This devastating event contrasts with the Disney image that many people might have of penguins. It’s more like ‘Tarantino Does Happy Feet’, with dead penguin chicks strewn across a beach in Adélie Land.

“The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adélie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable.

Downie said the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) should respond to the breeding disaster by adopting a new marine protected area for the waters off East Antarctica to protect the home of the penguins.

The CCAMLR, made up 25 member states and the EU, is meeting on Monday to consider a proposal for a new marine protected area for the waters off East Antarctica.

The WWF has been supporting penguin research by French scientists working for the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in the East Antarctica region since 2010, based at the Dumont D’Urville research station adjacent to the colony.

Yan Ropert-Coudert, the senior penguin scientist at the CNRS, said: “The region is impacted by environmental changes that are linked to the break-up of the Mertz glacier since 2010. A marine protected area will not remedy these changes but it could prevent further impacts that direct anthropogenic pressures, such as tourism and proposed fisheries, could bring.”