They have survived dark Antarctic winters, frigid temperatures, and fierce predators such as leopard seals for millions of years. However, some emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) colonies, including the one featured in the documentary “March of the Penguins,” face a grave future.
The emperor penguin is one of the most ice-dependent of all penguin species, requiring sea ice for foraging, breeding, and raising its young. It is the only penguin to breed on sea ice and remain in Antarctica through the winter.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists emperor penguins as Near Threatened with extinction. As of 2012, there were about 238,000 breeding pairs in existence, but scientists project that populations will plummet by as much as 33 percent by the turn of the century.
Fossil records show that emperor penguins probably began their evolution during the time of the dinosaurs.
Emperor penguins require an abundant and accessible food supply consisting primarily of krill, the tiny shrimplike crustaceans that serve as building blocks of the food web in the Southern Ocean off Antarctica.
Much of the industrial fishing for Antarctic krill occurs in coastal waters and overlaps with penguin foraging areas. If this activity continues close to coastal areas, and if seaice coverage continues to decrease as a result of climate change, penguins will have to travel farther from their colonies to find food. The longer the parents are away, the greater the likelihood that their chicks will succumb to predation and starvation.
The Pew Charitable Trusts advocates for ecosystem-based management of fisheries and a network of marine reserves in the Southern Ocean to protect emperor penguins and their habitat. Pew recommends:
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is an international body of 24 countries and the European Union with the authority to create large-scale, fully protected marine reserves in the waters surrounding Antarctica. Action by CCAMLR is needed to help alleviate threats to these penguins and to protect them for the future.
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