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Antarctic penguins need protection from human activities

In a new study from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the British Antarctic Survey, experts describe how a network of marine protected areas could help safeguard Antarctic penguins. According to the researchers, these areas represent some of the most important breeding grounds for Antarctic penguins.

The findings show that if all of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that have been proposed in the Southern Ocean were adopted, the permanent conservation of high-quality areas for the penguins would increase by between 49 and 100 percent, depending on the species.

The Southern Ocean is home to four species of penguins – the Adélie, Chinstrap, Gentoo and Emperor. Many critical penguin habitats remain unprotected, which exposes the animals to human-related threats such as pollution and overfishing. For example, penguins rely heavily on krill, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans, which are also targeted by large commercial fisheries.

For their analysis, the researchers used a new approach based on colony location, population estimates, and tracking data. The team identified globally important areas for penguin species around Antarctica.

Overall, the experts pinpointed 63 key sites known as Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). These sites surround the breeding colonies of several thousands of penguins when the animals congregate to raise their chicks.

“Our findings provide critical evidence about the location and relevance of some of the most important areas globally for chick-rearing adult penguins breeding in Antarctica and nearby islands,” said study lead author Dr. Jonathan Handley of Birdlife International.

“Over the past five decades, krill fisheries have concentrated into a small number of areas in Antarctic waters, some of which we identified as important penguin foraging grounds. This poses a likely threat for several penguin colonies, especially when they are rearing chicks.”

In 1982, an international convention was established to control the increasing commercial interest in Antarctic fisheries – particularly krill resources. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) proposed the creation of a network of MPAs around Antarctica. So far, only two of these MPAs have been implemented, and three more have been discussed.

Study co-author Dr. Aldina Franco said the new research supports the adoption of the MPA network. 

“Recent studies have shown that krill fisheries could be directly competing with penguins for critical food supplies,” said Dr. Franco. “The proposed Marine Protected Area network, which has recognized go/no go areas for krill fisheries, can help guarantee that enough krill is available for penguins.”

“Marine resources need to be managed in a sustainable way if we are to guarantee the existence of these emblematic penguin species in the future,” added study co-lead author Marie-Morgane Rouyer. 

The study revealed that Adélie and Emperor penguins currently have about 30 percent of their important areas within adopted MPAs, Chinstraps have one percent, and Gentoos have none. If all proposed MPAs in the Southern Ocean were adopted, an average of 80 percent of the Antarctic penguins would have their key breeding grounds within an MPA. 

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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