Penguins Marching Slowly Toward Recovery in Argentina, Experts Say

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 2, 2005
It's almost summertime in the Patagonia region of Argentina, and though
the living isn't easy on its wind-scraped shores, threatened penguin colonies there
are stabilizing, according to biologists.

Oily waters, competition for food with commercial fishing fleets, and other factors have been blamed for an estimated 35 percent decline in the population of Magellanic penguins since the 1980s.

Graham Harris, a biologist who manages the Wildlife Conservation Society's office in Chubut, Argentina, said the population is now "holding steady."

Dee Boersma, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, recently completed a population survey of the Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo, the site of the largest colony. Her preliminary results confirm Harris' impression.

"We're really excited, because we are seeing for the past three years the birds have stabilized," she said. "And there's been a little uptick from this last year. So we are turning the corner."

Harris, who is president of the Argentine conservation organization Fundación Patagonia Natural, and Boersma, who directs the Magellanic Penguin Project, have toiled since the 1980s to protect the seabirds.

While the biologists both say the recent population numbers are encouraging, the penguins still face obstacles to their long-term survival.

Lingering Threats

The biggest threat the penguins face today stems from competition with the commercial fishing industry. Harris said the fleets are "fishing down the food chain."

Now that stocks of larger, more valuable species such as toothfish are depleted, fisheries are targeting smaller and smaller species.

"If we continue fishing down the food web it will be more and more damaging for a variety of wildlife species, certainly for the penguins," Boersma said.

According to Harris, the greatest concern is a trend toward fishing the Argentine anchovy, a staple penguin food. A facility for processing the anchovies into fish meal recently opened in Uruguay, he said. Fish meal is used as feed for livestock and as fertilizer.

Harris' Fundación Patagonia Natural has expressed concern to regional governments about anchovy fisheries.

The organization is also participating in a Wildlife Conservation Society study that documents the toll of overfishing on the southwest Atlantic ecosystem.

Harris is hopeful the efforts will result in measures that maintain a steady supply of fish for the penguins. But he says he and his colleagues face many challenges.

"The fishing industry is very powerful," he said. "It generates a lot of money, provides a lot of jobs, [and] has the backing of the Argentine government."

Success Story

Harris and his colleagues have successfully stood up to past challenges. Their efforts over the past two decades led to greater enforcement of shipping regulations and redrawn shipping lanes near Argentina's penguin colonies.

This resulted in less oily water being illegally dumped near the colonies.

Ships fill their empty oil tanks with water to weigh them down and maintain balance at sea, then dump the water before arriving at port to fill up with petroleum, Harris explained.

The dumped water has an oily residue that destroys the insulating properties of penguin feathers.

In an effort to stay warm, the penguins head toward shore, where they eventually starve to death. And ingestion of even a small amount of oil, usually through the preening of feathers, can cause stomach lesions and depress the immune system.

"The number of oiled birds that we see on the shores of Patagonia has declined enormously since the 1980s," Harris said.

But Boersma said the picture is not as rosy elsewhere. Early next year, she plans to publish results from a survey of oiled birds off Uruguay and southern Brazil.

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