In 1982 the Falklands had six million
penguins, now there are less than one million.
Where have 5 million penguins gone? The answer lies below
At least 100,000 penguins
have died from starvation during May 2002 in the Falkland Islands.
Penguin colonies throughout the Falklands are littered with dead
penguins, some fresh, some partially decayed with bones protruding.
All have died within the last few weeks, and all have died during
their annual moult. Their condition and weight show that they all
died as a result of starvation.
Rockhopper and Gentoo penguins are the worst
affected, with Magellanic penguins and cormorants also dying. The
worst affected areas are along the north of the islands, where 50%
of the Rockhopper penguin population and 10% of the Gentoo penguin
population has died.
Some birds barely alive, still undergoing
their moult in June, are too weak to walk. Vultures and caracaras
follow them around waiting for them to die. The Rockhoppers average
weight is under 2kg and Gentoos just 4kg. But why are so many penguins
dying during the course of a few weeks?
When penguins change their feathers, they
loose their insulation, making it impossible to enter the icy cold
ocean to feed for about three weeks. Penguins fatten themselves
up during February and March ready for the moult, but if food is
too scarce during this period, they are in trouble.
Without enough fat reserves to survive
three weeks without food they are doomed, like a car setting out
on a 100 mile journey without enough petrol. When the fuel runs
out, the motor stops, and the penguin dies. The same thing occurred
in 1986, when over a million Rockhopper penguins starved to death
in exactly the same manner as has occurred this year.
Mass starvation of adults is not the only
evidence of food shortage around the Falklands. Penguin chicks also
starve to death by the thousand every year in the Falklands. A joint
research project between the Environmental Research Unit and the
Chilean government, funded by the British government, shows that
penguin chicks in Chile and Argentina do not starve in large numbers
like they do in the Falklands. On the contrary, there is evidence
that some penguins are moving from the Falklands to South America
where food is more plentiful.
The nearest Rockhopper penguin colony to the Falklands
is on Staten Island, Argentina. Populations have increased rapidly
on Staten Island, whilst populations in the Falklands have been
crashing. The population increase on Staten Island has been so rapid
that it cannot be explained by breeding success alone, suggesting
that Rockhopper penguins have been moving there from somewhere else.
The only likely source was the Falkland Islands.
A few years ago Gentoo penguins did not breed
anywhere in South America, but during the 1990s, when Gentoo penguins
were declining in the Falklands, two small colonies appeared in
Argentina. With no other Gentoos in South America, the only nearby
source was the Falkland Islands.
Magdalena Island in Chile is the nearest
colony of Magellanic penguin burrows to the Falklands. Many years
ago commercial fishing was allowed around the island, and the penguins
declined. Then the Chilean government declared Magdalena Island
a nature reserve, and established a no-fishing zone around the island,
since when penguin populations have flourished. Unfortunately the
Falkland Islands Government have still not established any protective
measures in Falklands waters, and the differences are striking.
Magellanic penguins in Chile, where a no-fishing
zone has been established, can find food for their chicks in just
14 hours. By comparison, Magellanic penguins in the Falklands, where
commercial fishing still occurs close to penguin colonies, need
an average of over 34 hours - more than twice as long to find the
same quantity of food.
With chicks in the Falklands receiving less
than half the amount of food, it is not surprising that most of
them starve. In Chile an average of 1.4 chicks per nest survive,
whilst in the Falklands it is less than half that, this year recording
an appallingly low 0.5 chicks per nest. The reason for such low
reproductive success is that most chicks in the Falklands die from
starvation every year.
In 1982, British troops sent to the Falklands
were told they were liberating an island of 2,000 people and 6 million
penguins, a figure supported by the ICBP (Status and Conservation
of Seabirds at the Falkland Islands) in 1984. These 6 million penguins
have crashed to less than 1 million over the last 20 years, due
to insufficient fish and squid around the Falklands. This coincides
with the establishment of a squid and fishing industry around the
Falklands. Falkland Islands Sealions and Elephant seals which also
rely on fish and squid have also crashed in number over recent years.
In September 2000, the Spheniscus Penguin
Conservation Group, and the International Penguin Conservation Work
Group, called for a 30 mile exclusion zone around penguin colonies
world-wide. So far the Falkland Islands Government have not implemented
this protection, and penguins continue to starve.
If the Falkland Islands Government were
to impose a no-fishing zone around penguin colonies, then it would
help penguins to recover, as occurred when Chile introduced such
measures. Such a no-fishing zone would reduce the available fishing
grounds in the Falklands by less than 3% - hardly a dramatic financial
loss to a government with an income of $30,000 per man, woman and
If a relatively poor country such as Chile
can protect its penguins in such a manner, then why can't the Falklands?
to see our letter to the Falkland Islands Government asking
for the introduction of no-fishing zones around penguin breeding