Nearly 50% of the breeding population of the world’s most endangered penguin species has disappeared from the island sanctuary Whenua Hou. New Zealand’s native yellow-eyed penguin has dropped significantly in numbers, down to just 1600-1800 from 7000 in at the start of the century.
When the Department of Conservation surveyed Whenua Hou they discovered that the penguin population had nearly halved. In 2016, 24 nests were recorded. The recent survey found only 14. This, coupled with the news that yellow-eyed penguin numbers are at the lowest levels in 27 years around the country, has generated great concern for the future of this unique bird.
Given that Whenua Hou is predator-free, conservationists are blaming commercial fishing for the drop in numbers. “Unlike previous years where disease and high temperatures caused deaths on land, this year birds have disappeared at sea,” says Forest & Bird’s CEO Kevin Hague. “There is an active set net fishery within the penguins’ Whenua Hou foraging ground, and the indications are that nearly half the Whenua Hou hoiho population has been drowned in one or more of these nets”, The Guardian reports.
With just 3% of commercial trawlers possessing independent observers to report bycatch deaths, this is the most obvious explanation.
Conservation organisations are working to save the bird, which features on New Zealand’s $5 bill. Sue Murray, general manager of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust, said there are numerous threats facing the species. Fishing is just one problem among growing issues of climate change, disease and dogs or other predators. “The trust has huge concerns for the future of hoiho [yellow-eyed penguins] on Whenua Hou given their rapid decline,” she says. “Our focus must be the marine environment where hoiho spend at least half of their life as it is unlikely that terrestrial impacts are a major factor in the decline here.”
Penguin expert Thomas Mattern from The University of Otago expressed the gravity of the situation, saying “Quite frankly, the yellow-eyed penguins, in my professional opinion, are on their way out.”
Check out Dunedin NZ’s video of the yellow-eyed penguin below.