Published: Wed, May 17, 2017
Science | By Hubert Green

Yellow-eyed penguins to become extinct in the next 25 years: Research

Yellow-eyed penguins to become extinct in the next 25 years: Research

Dunedin's beloved yellow-eyed penguins face nearly certain extinction from the mainland unless urgent action is taken, a University of Otago researcher says. Yet, the chances of seeing the penguins in the wild are quietly slipping away, the new research suggests.

"The problem is that we lack data to examine the extent of human impacts, ranging from fisheries interactions, introduced predators to human disturbance, all of which contribute to the penguins' demise", Thomas Mattern, researcher at the University of Otago, said in a news release.

If the recent poor breeding years - 2013 onwards - are included in the simulation of the future penguin population, things get progressively worse.

Because penguins are easily disturbed, there are several public viewing hides in New Zealand, including Bushy Beach, Katiki Point and Nugget Point Reserve.

There was no excuse for not acting given the species' economic and cultural significance to Dunedin and New Zealand.

He says the yellow-eyed penguin features on the $5 note and on welcome billboards at New Zealand airports. "Generally speaking, understanding how penguins are doing gives us some insight into how the ocean ecosystem may (or may not) be functioning".

There was not much data on populations living in the Auckland and Campbell Islands, but it was possible the same trend was happening there also. They are set to vanish from popular tourist sites on the Otago Peninsula in as little as 25 years.

They compared this data with sea surface temperature data and it was clear this was the main environmental influence on penguin numbers.

But climate change only accounts for part of why these penguins are disappearing: The study can not account for human impact such as local fisheries.

The fact that yellow-eyed penguins aren't faring so well bodes poorly for other animals in the region, according to Dr. Michelle LaRue, a research ecologist at the University of Minnesota.

Dr Richdale believed this was because World War 2 meant there was less industrial activity and fishing because so many soldiers were fighting in the war.

Another researcher, Phil Seddon, director of wildlife management at the University of Otago, says the project would need more time to study the data to see what is happening to the species, but unfortunately, it is time the species can not afford.

Prof Seddon said: "In the current era of fast science, long-term projects have become a rarity".

New Zealand's other famous bird, the kiwi, is also in trouble with the northern brown kiwi and the Okarito brown kiwi both classed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

In the paper, the researchers say we need to make a choice to stop the species from dying off.

Despite this urgency, Yellow-eyed penguins continue to drown as unintentional bycatch in nets set in penguin foraging areas, suffer from degradation of their marine habitat because of human activities, and die from unidentified toxins.

"The authors concluded that without 'immediate, bold and effective conservation measures" the penguins face extinction "within our lifetime".

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