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In Antarctica, larger marine protected areas are needed to protect emperor penguins


To sufficiently protect emperor penguins and help the species avoid extinction, governments should strengthen marine protections around Antarctica, scientists say.

The recommendation follows new research that shows young emperor penguins venture much farther than adults to forage for food, journeys that take them well outside established and proposed conservation areas in the Weddell Sea. , which is home to a third of the established colonies of emperor penguins on Earth. .

For the study, scientists tracked eight juvenile emperor penguins in the Weddell Sea for a year and reviewed juvenile Antarctic penguin tracking data from previous studies. Data shows that young birds spent about 90% of their time outside current and proposed marine protected areas (MPAs), and that juveniles traveled more than 745 miles (1,200 kilometers) beyond the protected area. distribution of adult species defined by the International Union for the Protection of the Environment. Nature Conservation. The new study has been published in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The findings preceded an October 25 announcement that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had added emperor penguins to the endangered species list, which establishes federal protections that will require Americans not to contribute to the further decline of the species. In doing so, the United States said emperor penguins are at risk of extinction due to sea ice loss caused by climate change.

The emperor penguin report also comes as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) – the governing body responsible for conserving the Southern Ocean – plans to expand the network of MPAs around Antarctica.

The CCAMLR Annual Meeting took place on October 24 and will continue until November 4 in Australia. For several years, the 27 members of CCAMLR have been studying three new proposals for MPAs in the region that would help preserve large areas of the ecosystem.

Studies show that MPAs can help vulnerable ecosystems build resilience to climate change by removing additional stresses, such as fishing. Additionally, networks of connected MPAs can help wildlife even further by providing protected migration routes.

But even if CCAMLR approves the three proposed MPAs, emperor penguins would not be sufficiently protected, the study concludes. Indeed, the CCAMLR delegates relied on scientific data concerning only the movements of adult emperor penguins to propose the limits of the MPA. Researchers are now advocating for more extensive monitoring of young emperor penguins to generate information that supports the most appropriate protections in Antarctic waters.

Today, the estimated 270,000 to 280,000 breeding pairs of emperor penguins in Antarctica are at risk of extinction this century, according to research published last year. In proposing to designate the species as threatened, the US Fish and Wildlife Service pointed to scientific predictions that the global emperor penguin population will decline between 26% and 47% by 2050, depending on future carbon emissions.

Emperor penguins need plenty of sea ice to survive, but rising temperatures in Antarctica due to climate change are melting the ice, putting the species at risk. Emperor penguins under the age of 4 are even more vulnerable than adults because they have not fully developed the skills needed to forage for food and avoid predators.

“While everyone is looking at the adult population [of emperor penguins]the juvenile population – which leaves the relative safety of its parents at around five months – is unsupervised and unprotected,” said Dan Zitterbart, associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and co-author of the study. .

Emperor penguins in Antarctica.

John Weller

Emperor penguins, endemic to Antarctica, are the largest and heaviest species of penguin in the world, weighing up to 99 pounds and reaching a maximum height of around 4 feet 3 inches. They don’t fly but hold the Guinness World Record for dive deeper and stay underwater longer than any other bird. The farthest dive documented by scientists is 1,854 feet and the longest underwater swim is 32.2 minutes.

Scientists will continue to monitor penguin colonies in the Weddell Sea. Research shows that sea ice in the region, including the Weddell and Ross Seas, where colonies of emperor penguins thrive, is less susceptible to accelerated melting than in other areas of Antarctica. A comprehensive network of MPAs in the Southern Ocean is needed to protect food sources for emperor penguins in the region.

“Some of the Weddell Sea colonies are expected to still be around in 50 to 100 years,” said Aymeric Houstin, the study’s lead author. “It is important to preserve colonies that will be able to withstand climate change, as they could become a refuge for the entire population of emperor penguins.

Antarctica is one of the fastest warming places on Earth. Alarmingly high temperatures, coupled with increasing fishing pressure, threaten not only emperor penguins but other wildlife, including other penguin species, seals, whales, albatrosses and krill, which are at the center of the Southern Ocean food web and a primary food source for emperor penguins.

To protect this spectacular region, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project and its partners are working with CCAMLR and its member governments to support the adoption of ecosystem-based fisheries management practices and the creation of a network of large-scale MPAs. scale around Antarctica. CCAMLR delegates should continue their efforts to adopt the proposed MPAs, but should also expand their boundaries based on the best available science. This would help protect all of Antarctica’s vulnerable species, including juvenile emperor penguins.

Andrea Kavanagh leads work protecting Antarctica and the Southern Ocean for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.