In Antarctica, Larger Marine Protected Areas Needed to Safeguard Emperor Penguins

New study shows that juveniles travel hundreds of miles farther than adults and face greater threats

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In Antarctica, Larger Marine Protected Areas Needed to Safeguard Emperor Penguins
portrait of three cute emperor penguin chicks sitting in snow
Young emperor penguins huddle together; new research shows that such juveniles spend about 90% of their time outside of current and proposed marine protected areas, leaving them vulnerable to predators.
Gabriele Grassl

To sufficiently protect emperor penguins and help the species stave off extinction, governments should strengthen marine protections around Antarctica, scientists say.

The recommendation follows new research that shows young emperor penguins venture much farther than adults to forage for food, journeys that take them well outside of established and proposed conservation zones in the Weddell Sea, home to one-third of the established emperor penguin colonies on Earth.

For the study, scientists tracked eight juvenile emperor penguins in the Weddell Sea over one year and looked at juvenile penguin tracking data from around Antarctica from previous studies. The data shows that the young birds spent about 90% of their time outside of current and proposed marine protected areas (MPAs), and that the juveniles traveled more than 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) beyond the adult species range defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The new study was published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The findings preceded an Oct. 25 announcement that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had added emperor penguins to the endangered species list, which establishes federal protections that will require Americans not to contribute to the further decline of the species. In doing so, the U.S. declared that emperor penguins are at risk of extinction due to sea-ice loss driven by climate change.

The emperor penguin report also arrives as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—the governing body charged with the conservation of the Southern Ocean—considers expanding the network of MPAs around Antarctica.

The annual meeting of CCAMLR convened on Oct. 24 and will run through Nov. 4 in Australia. For several years, the 27 members of CCAMLR have been considering three new proposed MPAs in the region that would aid in preserving vast swaths of the ecosystem.

Studies show that MPAs can help vulnerable ecosystems build resilience to climate change by eliminating additional stresses, such as fishing. Further, networks of connected MPAs can help wildlife even more by offering them protected migration pathways.

But even if CCAMLR approves the three proposed MPAs, emperor penguins would not be sufficiently protected, the study concluded. That’s because CCAMLR delegates relied on scientific data on only adult emperor penguins’ movements in proposing the MPA boundaries. Researchers are now advocating for further tracking of young emperor penguins to generate information that supports the most appropriate protections in Antarctica’s waters.

Today, the estimated 270,000 to 280,000 emperor penguin breeding pairs in Antarctica are at risk of extinction within this century, according to research published last year. In proposing to designate the species as threatened, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pointed to scientific predictions that the global population of emperor penguins will decrease between 26% and 47% by 2050, depending on future carbon emissions.

Emperor penguins need plenty of sea ice to survive, but rising temperatures in Antarctica due to climate change are causing the ice to melt, which leaves the species at risk. Emperor penguins under the age of 4 are even more vulnerable than adults because they have not fully developed the skills to forage for food and avoid predators.

“While everyone is looking at the adult population [of emperor penguins], the juvenile population—which leaves the relative safety of its parents at about five months—is neither monitored nor protected,” said Dan Zitterbart, an associate scientist for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and a co-author of the study.

Emperor penguins in Antarctica.
John Weller

Emperor penguins, endemic to Antarctica, are the tallest and heaviest penguin species in the world, weighing up to 99 pounds and reaching a maximum height of about 4 feet, 3 inches. They do not fly but hold the Guinness World Record for diving deeper and remaining underwater longer than any other bird. The farthest documented dive by scientists is 1,854 feet, and the longest underwater swim is 32.2 minutes.

Scientists will continue to monitor penguin colonies in the Weddell Sea. Research shows that sea ice in the region—including the Weddell and Ross seas, where emperor penguin colonies thrive—is less susceptible to accelerated melting than in other Antarctic areas. A full network of MPAs within the Southern Ocean is needed to protect the food sources of emperor penguins in the region.

“Some of the Weddell Sea colonies are expected to still be present 50 to 100 years from now,” said Aymeric Houstin, the study’s lead author. “It’s important to preserve colonies that will be able to endure climate change, as they could become a refuge for the entire population of emperor penguins.”

Antarctica is among the fastest-warming places on Earth. Alarmingly high temperatures, coupled with rising pressure from fishing, threaten not only emperor penguins but other wildlife, including other penguin species, seals, whales, albatross, and krill, which are at the center of the Southern Ocean food web and a main source of food for emperor penguins.

To protect this spectacular region, The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project and its partners are working with CCAMLR and its member governments to support the adoption of ecosystem-based fisheries management practices and the establishment of a network of large-scale MPAs around Antarctica. CCAMLR delegates should continue to work toward adoption of the proposed MPAs but should also expand their boundaries according to the best available science. Doing so would help protect all vulnerable Antarctic species, including juvenile emperor penguins.­

Andrea Kavanagh directs Antarctic and Southern Ocean protection work for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.

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