Penguins Marching Slowly Toward Recovery in Argentina, Experts Say

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.

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