Emperor Penguin, Atka Bay, Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Photographed by Hannes Grobe/AWI.When most people think about Antarctica the first thing that usually pops into their minds are penguins. The tuxedo-clad birds are one of the most recognized and loved species living in Antarctica. However their livelihood is under attack from threats, namely the growing krill industry and climate change. It is important to take action now to prevent the penguin from going the same way as the Dodo.
Out of the seventeen penguin species in the world there are only six species that live in Antarctica; Adélies, Chinstraps, Emperors, Gentoos, Macaronis, and Rockhoppers. Out of these six species only four species breed on Antarctica, the Adélie, the Emperor, the Chinstrap and the Gentoo. Penguins are flightless birds that mainly feed on krill and fish. Penguins can swim as fast as 12 mph (20 kph) and can stay under water for 15 to 20 minutes, diving as deep as 500-550 meters (the deepest dive on record was 565 m).
These waddling birds are under threat from the growing krill industry. Krill is a keystone species in the Southern Ocean and directly or indirectly affects every species that lives in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Penguins, whales and seals are just some of the species that survive off of eating krill. Commercialization of these shrimp-like creatures has been going on since the early 1970s. They have been harvested for human consumption, nutritional supplements and fish feed. However in recent years with advances in aquaculture technology the commercialization and demand of krill has increased, meaning more krill leaving the ocean and less krill for penguins and for the other species (Learn more about conserving the krill industry here).
Adélie Penguin regurgitates krill for its chick. Photographed by Liam Quinn/CanadaThe other main threat facing Antarctic penguins is climate change. According to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), published at the UN conference on climate change in Bali, it has been found that global warming is occurring five times faster in the Antarctic Peninsula than the rest of the world. This warming is causing an increase in water temperature that is leading to limited food supplies and the melting of sea ice. Sea ice is already covering 40% less area then it did 26 years ago off the west Antarctic Peninsula. The melting of the sea ice is also causing penguin colonies to head farther south, into darker territory (related article). According to the WWF report it was found that some colonies of chinstraps have seen reductions in numbers of up to two-thirds and on the northwestern coast of the Antarctic Peninsula populations of Adelie penguins have dropped by 65% in the last 25 years. Gentoo penguins are also facing shrinkage of numbers due to the depletion of their food, krill.
What You Can Do
Conserving and protecting penguins does not require any special expertise. You can help by not purchasing nutritional supplements made from krill, regardless of the presence of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainability level. The MSC has certified this fishery over the objections of ASOC and in the face of inadequate scientific evidence. You can also just improve your carbon footprint to help reduce the effects of climate change.
Photograph by John B.Weller
Click here for World Animal Foundation's Penguin Fact Sheet
Click here to read WWF's 'Antarctic Penguins and Climate Change'