Network of protected areas improves situation of penguins | Polarjournal
All penguin species spend most of the year in the sea and only come ashore during the breeding season. On that occasion, the brood-areas near the food-areas are preferred. For species like Adélies, this means close to large krill areas, which are also used by humans. Picture: Michael Wenger

Penguins in Antarctica are not only pretty to look at, but are also considered indicators of the state of the Southern Ocean. This is because the iconic birds depend directly on marine organisms for food, be it krill, fish or other animals. That is why it would also be important to establish and maintain marine protected areas in the right places. A study now shows that with the implementation of all the planned protected areas, the various penguin species would be protected between 49 and 100 percent.

The team, which included scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the University of East Anglia and BirdLife International, came to this conclusion after analysing colony locations, population sizes and tracking data. This allowed them to show where the penguins hang out the most. In the process, they came up with 63 key locations around Antarctica. They matched this data with krill fishing areas, showing that the preferred locations overlapped with those of the penguins. ““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 lead author Dr Jonathan Handley, of Birdlife International. However, these areas are also those that are proposed at meetings of CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) but rejected by individual countries such as Russia. The results of the study now show for the first time how big this protective role of the protected areas would be and have been published in the latest issue of the journal Frontiers in Marine Science.

One of the protected areas now established concerns the Ross Sea in East Antarctica. There you can find the southernmost and partly largest penguin colonies of the Antarctic continent. But an earlier study was able to show that protected areas further west would be better for the penguins. Picture: Michael Wenger

For their study, the international team examined the four penguin species found around Antarctica: Emperor, Adélie, Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins. While Adélies and Chinstrap penguins share the same food source (krill) but forage differently far from their breeding grounds, emperor penguins are primarily interested in fish and squid, and gentoo penguins are more generalists, hunting other marine organisms besides krill. This allowed the researchers to take into account the diversity of the Southern Ocean. The comparison with the areas fished for krill showed that, although the fishing areas have decreased over the past fifty years, too much krill is caught in the regions used by the penguins in relation to the total area. This poses a threat to penguin species in their preferred feeding grounds. Experts have been drawing attention for years to the fact that krill fishing in Antarctica is putting additional pressure on Antarctic wildlife. “Recent studies have shown that krill fisheries could be directly competing with penguins for critical food supplies,” explains Dr Aldina Franco of the University of East Anglia, co-author of the study. “The proposed Marine Protected Area network, which has recognised go/no go areas for krill fisheries, can help guarantee that enough krill is available for penguins.”

Although krill looks like a shrimp, it is not in the same order. Within the crustaceans, the krill which grows up to 6 centimeters are an own order (Euphausiacea). They depend on sea ice for their development and are thus endangered by ocean warming. The krill fishery is also beginning to put pressure on the animals, although catches are currently still low. Picture: Michael Wenger

Actual steps towards the establishment of protected areas are slowed down by the economic interests of individual countries due to krill fishing. Russia and China in particular have repeatedly vetoed at CCAMLR meetings in recent years. Since decisions in the Commission have to be unanimous, the new protected areas have thus been rejected time and again. And the sanctuaries that have already been established are not particularly helpful to the penguins. Depending on the species, the researchers found massive differences in their study. For Adélies, for example, only 27 per cent of the areas important to them are in protected zones, for Chinstrap penguins it is as little as 1 per cent and for Gentoo Penguins none at all. The latter, however, is related to the fact that Gentoo penguins are not really an Antarctic species, but are probably slowly spreading there as the Antarctic Peninsula warms. On that occasion, they take the places, that are left by the related Chinstrap- and Adélie penguins. The team of authors write in their paper that if all the proposed protected areas were established, an average of 80 percent of the areas important to penguins would be within the protected zones. And this would be good news for the icons of Antarctica for once.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the study: Hadley et al (2021) Frontiers Mar Sci 7; Marine Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas for Penguins in Antarctica, Targets for Conservation Action. DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2020.602972

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