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Fishing Nets, Climate Change Threaten Yellow-Eyed Penguins in New Zealand

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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yellow-eyed penguinIt has been a rough few decades for endangered yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes). The species can only be found along a small portion of the southeastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, the nearby Auckland Islands, and the isles of Campbell, Stewart and Codfish. Their total population numbered nearly 7,000 birds just 30 years ago but today that total has fallen to closer to 4,000. The species seems to face threats from all sides: Feral cats and invasive stoats (a kind of weasel that also threatens kiwis) prey on their nests; bacterial diseases and a blood parasite have killed them by the hundreds; food has at times been scarce, possibly due to climate change; and ecotourists have been known to disturb the penguins’ breeding colonies, lowering fledglings’ chances of survival.

Now we have word of yet one more, growing threat to the penguins at coastal New Zealand. According to data presented this past weekend at a symposium on the species, an estimated 70 yellow-eyed penguins are known to die every year from entanglement in trawling nets or long-line fishing hooks used by commercial fishing vessels.

But that number might be an underestimate. According to marine ecologist Ursula Ellenberg, director at Eudyptes EcoConsulting, Ltd., more data is needed to understand the mortality rate of yellow-eyed penguins. Ellenberg, who has been studying the birds since 2003, told the symposium audience that there is a need for more monitoring of large commercial fishing vessels and the creatures that are caught in or die in their nets. Earlier this year conservationists attempted but failed to place human observers on commercial ships in two of the penguin’s primary habitat regions along the Otago Peninsula on South Island and the Foveaux Strait between South and Stewart islands.
New Zealand Steward Island
Ellenberg reported that an electronic monitoring system is being tested on smaller boats that use set nets, fixed gill nets set into place with anchors. The system combines cameras, GPS devices and winch sensors to document what is being caught in these nets. The boats that use set nets are typically too small to carry human observers in addition to their crew. Set nets are the biggest threat to New Zealand’s critically endangered Maui’s dolphins (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui).

New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries—which was formed in April following the merger of the ministries related to fisheries, agriculture and forestry—reported at the symposium that they are developing a five-year observation plan to see how fishing vessels affect all seabirds in the region.

Yellow-eyed penguins are kind of the “odd ducks” of the penguin world. They nest in coastal forests and scrub patches. They are solitary animals, unlike some other penguin species which prefer groups. They are also quite vocal; their high-pitched calls, show below, earned them the Maori name hoiho, which means “noise shouter.”

Photo by Harald Selke via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license. Map via Wikimedia Commons

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Poppa beer 5:16 am 08/10/2012

    Forget about nets and long lines and take a closer look at the ever increasing population of the fur seals that are not only threatening the penguins but are also competing for the limited natural food source, these are by far the bigger problem

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  2. 2. john darby 12:03 am 08/14/2012

    A bit of an error by your reporter. 72 Yellow-eyeds were caught over a period of 18 years. However, at the tail end of my study we recorded a single vessel taking 11 birds over a period of three weeks and still counting. There is little doubt in my mind that the by-catch of this species is very much understated

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  3. 3. David McFarlane 11:52 pm 08/26/2012

    Hi John, Your comments about the challenges facing yellow-eyed penguins are well made.The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust (the Trust) works on both terrestrial threats and threats at sea, especially from what is euphemistically called “interactions” with the commercial fishing industry.
    Long time and respected yellow-eyed penguin researcher John Darby, and consultant Ursula Ellenberg, have both identified that there is a problem. More data would be useful but should not stop immediate efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate penguin bycatch.The Trust is working on this issue with tourist operators and organizations,which rely on this special bird and other Otago coastal wildlife as the basis of a sustainable $100 million pa industry.We also look forward to engaging with the fishing industry in joint pursuit of the conservation of this extraordinary and economically valuable bird,
    David McFarlane – Field Manager/ YEPT

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