Penguins as Indicators: Understanding the Changing Marine Environment

The fragile conservation status of most penguins populations reflects problems in the world's Southern Ocean, including climate change, pollution and fisheries mismanagement. Penguins are subject to these environmental changes because they travel great distances to migrate and forage. In addition, the condition of penguin populations can serve as an indicator of the marine ecosystems on which they depend. A number of penguin colonies face an uncertain future, which will be tightly linked to the health of ocean ecosystems. 

Angela Bednarek of the Pew Environment Group's Ocean Science Division, talks about the panel on penguins that she will moderate on May 15th at the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) and why it is important to pay attention to the plight of these species.

How threatened are penguins?

Many penguin species have suffered very steep declines and now 11 of the 17 species are currently threatened with extinction.

What is causing their decline?

Penguins around the world face numerous threats, mainly from oil pollution, overfishing and climate change. For example, African penguins (Spheniscus demersus) have declined by 90 percent, in part because sardines and anchovies, their primary food, are also sought by large fisheries in the region. In Antarctica, emperor penguins have lost habitat for chick rearing because climate change has reduced sea ice.

Why is it important to study penguins?

Because penguins spend time on both land and in the sea, the status of their populations often reflects the health of the world's oceans. Penguins are affected by fluctuations in their environments and can therefore serve as effective indicators of problems in the oceans. In addition, penguins are charismatic and well-loved around the world, which helps to raise awareness and generate support for conservation of their ocean habitats.

Which penguins have the smallest populations? Which are the most abundant?

As Dr. Dee Boersma, one of our IMCC panelists, will discuss, the rarest of the penguin species is the Galapagos penguin (S. mendiculus), which is endemic to the Galapagos Islands. Although the population was estimated at 6,000 to 15,000 penguins in the early 1970s, it has suffered severe losses from El Niño ocean currents in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Today, Galapagos penguins number between 1,500 and 4,700.

By contrast, the Magellanic penguin (S. magellanicus) is the most common species of temperate penguin, with a population reaching several million. They breed in southern Chile and Argentina, as well as in the Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas. Although large in population size, the Magellanic penguins' main prey is also a primary target for existing Peruvian fisheries and developing fisheries in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, which may create risks for these animals from fishing gear and loss of food. In addition, pollution from offshore oil drilling creates problems for Magellanic penguins at their wintering grounds.

What else will the penguin panel at IMCC talk about?

By examining the status of penguin species facing various threats in Antarctica, Africa, New Zealand and South America, the Ocean Science Division's penguin symposium will discuss how best to conserve penguins and their ecosystems. Among the speakers, Dr. Robert Crawford of South Africa will discuss the large decreases in African penguin numbers due to declines in sardines and anchovies. Multiple factors, including reduced sea ice and a growing krill fishery, appear to be affecting population trends of penguin species in the Antarctic region, as Dr. Phil Trathan of the British Antarctic Survey will discuss.

Working toward solutions, Dr. Pablo Borboroglu of the National Research Council of Argentina and a Pew Marine Fellow will highlight the recently established Global Penguin Society, which seeks to integrate scientific, educational and conservation efforts to better protect penguins, including their food supplies and habitats.

Learn more about the International Marine Conservation Congress.