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15/06/2022

Where have all the African penguins at St Croix Island gone?

A myriad challenges, including bunkering, a lack of food and environmental waste, are all contributing to the rapid decline of what was once the world’s largest penguin colony.

Nelson Mandela Bay resident and Algoa Bay Conservation environmental chemist Ronelle Friend recently took to Facebook to highlight the dwindling numbers of birds on the island, which once housed more than 23,000 penguins.

“The penguins at Bird Island are fine — they seem to be on the norm of SA’s decline — but the penguins at St Croix have been disappearing drastically since 2016,” Friend said.

“The only difference between the two islands is the ship-to-ship bunkering that is happening right next to St Croix Island.

“Marine traffic brings noise, vibrations, oil spills, cleaning of bilge pumps — which the marine animals do not like,” she said.

In a joint statement on May 29, Algoa Bay Conservation, the Baywatch Project, Nelson Mandela Bay Tourism and Raggy Charters called for the halting of bunkering activity near the island after an oil spill on May 23.

The statement said the oil had been dispersed as a surface sheen over an extended surface area in the direction of St Croix Island and towards Bird Island.

The group also wrote to the SA Marine Safety Authority, calling for bunkering in the area to be suspended until an environmental impact assessment was performed.

“The ongoing fuel oil spills are evidence that a proactive approach must take place immediately before a catastrophic incident occurs,” the statement said.

“A call for action to cease [ship-to-ship] bunkering in terms of environmental protection legislation and environmental concerns.”

SA Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds research manager Dr Katta Ludynia said it had also noted the precipitous decline in penguin numbers.

“At St Croix, African penguin numbers have declined more than 70% since 2014, making this, previously the world’s largest breeding colony, rank only fourth largest in SA.

“The hope was that some birds had simply moved over to Bird Island; however, there has been no increase of birds originating from St Croix Island recorded on the ground readers that detect individually marked African penguins — so we know that the birds are not on Bird Island.”

Ludynia said the endangered African penguin faced many threats, including oiling, predation, extreme weather events worsened by the effects of climate change and disease, as well as food scarcity, which all contributed to their decline.

Nelson Mandela University Institute for Coastal and Marine Research acting director Prof Lorien Pichegru, who has studied and worked on conservation measures for the endangered species for 15 years, agreed.

“St Croix no longer has the largest colony — it looks like Mercury Island in Namibia might have the biggest colony,” Pichegru said.

“There are many threats to penguins and they have been on the decline on the West Coast especially, and it is because of the lack of food.

“I have been working with fishermen and the government to try to close in some of the key colonies to improve food availability for them.

“On top of that there is noise pollution and oil pollution from maritime traffic, which accelerate the decline of penguins,” she said.

Asked if the damage was reversible, Pichegru said: “I don’t say we can reverse the damage — the penguins are dead and for them to come back we need proper breeding habitat for them.”

Raggy Charters owner Lloyd Edwards said he had taken tourists on four trips to St Croix last week and could not find a single penguin on the lower reach of the island.

“These guys with the oil are totally destroying our tourism industry.

“We are now dealing with a marine ecosystem that has been destroyed and penguins are an indicator species — they indicate that we have problems,” he said.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 15 June 2022, written by Naziziphiwo Buso buson@theherald.co.za

NOT A PRETTY SIGHT: Oiled penguins — one of the results of a marine ecosystem that has been destroyed. Picture: Raggy Charters/The Baywatch project