How a new network of marine protected areas would help penguins

A little over two hundred years ago, explorers first saw Antarctica. Since then, the number of people and activities in Antarctica and the surrounding waters has continued to increase. Companies such as research, tourism and fisheries have raised concerns about the effects of pollution, human intrusion and disruption. One of the biggest concerns is overharvesting of krill as it is an important food source for many species of Antarctic wildlife.

To meet these challenges, a network of Large Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) has been developed that can support many important populations of Antarctic wildlife in the Southern Ocean. Despite nearly a decade of negotiations, the majority of these MPAs have yet to be formally approved as two of the 26 member states responsible for managing Antarctic waters argue that insufficient evidence has been presented.

Fortunately, important new evidence has just been released. In a collaborative new study conducted by BirdLife International and significantly supported by the British Antarctic Survey, researchers have identified some of the key locations at sea for an iconic group of Antarctic wildlife: the penguins. These remarkable birds are one of the few animals in Antarctica to span both land and sea, linking these two very different habitats together throughout their lifetime.

Adelie Penguin, Copyright James Lowen, from the Surfbirds Galleries

The paper found that if the proposed network of MPAs were approved, the area of ​​high quality penguin habitat under permanent protection would increase by 49% to 100%, depending on the species. In addition, the researchers found that while the Antarctic krill fishery has narrowed its fishing zones over the past 50 years, it still harvests a disproportionate amount of krill in key penguin feeding areas. Since these tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans are an important source of food for many penguins, these findings add significantly to the weight of the MPA proposal – supportive information from previous studies. Beyond the MPAS network, the study also provides broader guidance on where policymakers should act to help Antarctic wildlife address the uncertainties of climate change.

But how did scientists conduct their research in such a notoriously barren and harsh landscape? In order to find important areas for penguins at sea, two things are required: knowing how many birds there are and where they are going. Until recently, such a huge feat would have been impossible. Fortunately, through our ever-expanding exploration of Antarctica, coupled with recent advances in satellite imagery and drone technology, we have been able to roughly determine how many birds live in different breeding colonies on the continent.

For example, recent research from Stony Brook University used drones to determine penguin population numbers in several inaccessible areas of Antarctica. From these data, the team found that the population of chinstrap penguins that breed on Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands had declined by over 50% in recent years, while the Gentoo penguin Pygoscelis papua population had increased. This information resulted in a new global population estimate for Chinstrap penguins.

The next step is just around the corner. Every year 25 countries – together with the European Union – send delegations to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which is responsible for the management of the Antarctic marine environment. The aim of the CCAMLR is to preserve marine life in the Antarctic while at the same time enabling sustainable fisheries and resource use. Antarctica and the surrounding waters offer an important opportunity to implement best practice solutions that promote the coexistence of businesses and biodiversity.

At upcoming meetings, the BirdLife Marine Program, supported by the British Antarctic Survey and a team of scientists from seven countries, will provide additional evidence for the proposed MPAs. Given the determination CCAMLR has already shown on marine conservation issues, this year they have an unprecedented opportunity to identify some of the largest MPAs in the world – to protect a unique and globally connected ecosystem.

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