Since the first African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan gazetted in 2013, major efforts have been made to identify and attend to all possible threats affecting penguins’ breeding success and survival, writes Lorien Pichegru.
The debate around the reasons behind the dramatic loss of African penguins in South Africa in the past five to 10 years, but most importantly around the solutions to be adopted, seems to be raging in the media. After Melanie Verwoerd’s article This is not the march of the African penguins we want to see (News 24, 17 August), Doug Butterworth replied in Penguin, villains and heroes (News24, 8 October).
Butterworth argues that anchovy stocks seemed abundant (“well over average”), that the fishing industry would lose 600 jobs a year for closures that would not significantly benefit penguins and that the reason behind the penguins’ decline still remains unclear. He even goes as far as accusing biologists of withholding data that could contribute to understanding the “real reason behind the penguins’ decline”. As a seabird scientist who has worked on African penguins for the past 15 years, I am alarmed at the misrepresentation of the issue in the media by Butterworth.
Perhaps a broader context is necessary to place the current issue into the appropriate perspective.
Small pelagic fish stocks in South Africa are undeniably decreasing. To argue that anchovy stocks have been “above average” levels, Butterworth only considers the late 20th century, when anchovy stocks were relatively low as the benchmark to compare current stocks against. However, if the recruit stock levels are compared to the long-term average (1985-2021), information which is available to him, the last two years have been significantly below this average, and over the past five years that were surveyed, three of the five were below average. The 2022 survey of 246 201t is less than half the long-term average of 783 313t.
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Perhaps a lot worse, the sardine stock has been consistently below the long-term average since 2011, and for the latest five years of surveys (2015 – 2020, no survey was conducted in 2021), the average stock estimate has been 28% of the long-term average.
Furthermore, as stated by the department of Forestry, Fishery and the Environment in News 24, 16 September: “According to the department, sardine stock in South African waters is historically low. The resulting competition for food is considered to be contributing to the decline in the African penguin population”. The government does not seem to share Butterworth’s doubt about the reason behind the penguins’ decline.
Many peer-reviewed scientific papers show the clear link between African penguin population trend and the abundance of their main prey, sardine and anchovy (see Crawford et al 2022 for the latest review). The most obvious example is in Namibia, where over-fishing of sardines in the 1960s led to the collapse of the fish stock, followed by that of the penguin populations and the Cape gannets. The marine ecosystem is now dominated by jellyfish and pelagic gobies, trapped in an ecological dead end. The recent moratorium on sardine fishing did not help either the stock nor the penguins to recover.
A major concern about Butterworth’s article is the claim that an estimated 600 jobs have been lost per year due to closures. To this date, no real data has been supplied to substantiate this claim. The models used to calculate these estimates have been substantively criticised by the International Stock Assessment review panel due to inadequate methodology.
Real data, as opposed to modelled estimates, in terms of costs and benefits to fishery do exist but are withheld by the industry, despite repeated requests from NGOs and scientists to understand the real socio-economic cost of closures. The only scientific study using such data is the Masters’ thesis of a student I supervised, Tayla Ginsburg. She showed the absence of costs to the industry in Algoa Bay, in terms of travel time or loss in catches, during years of closures around St Croix Island.
Oceana, as an example, is the largest fishing company in Africa, with a substantial proportion of the small pelagic fish fishing quota. None of their publicly available reports mention any socio-economic impacts due to fishing exclusions for penguins, nor that closures are a risk to their operations.
In 2021, their COO stated: “Group revenue decreased by 8.1% [in 2021] to R7 633 million (2020: R8 308 million) as a result of lower canned fish, fishmeal and fish oil volumes, lower occupancy levels in the commercial cold storage segment, and a stronger exchange rate on export and US dollar translated revenue. This was offset by positive price movement across most products.”
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In fact, revenues climbed progressively since 2008, despite the fishing exclusion experiment around Dassen and Robben islands. It is important to note that closures have not reduced the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) awarded to the industry. However, fishing factories have had to shut down on the West Coast, but this had nothing to do with the closures. The stock has been so low that a reduction in processing capacity has been required. . It is also perhaps worth a reminder
that the entirety of the anchovy catches (200 000 to 500 000 t per
year) is turned into fish meal and oil to feed farmed fish or chicken, of which
90% is exported mostly to Asia. Only a portion of the sardine catches are canned for human consumption. The rest is used as bait or pet food.
While fishing closures may not be the panacea and suddenly turn the negative trend of penguin numbers into a swift recovery, improving penguins’ access to sufficient food is the only management tool that has not been explored sufficiently to save African penguins.
Since the first African Penguin Biodiversity Management Plan gazetted in 2013, major efforts have been made to identify and attend to all possible threats affecting penguins’ breeding success and survival. Colony managers, rehabilitation centres and scientists have been working hand in hand for almost 10 years to establish conservation measures, which are often colony specific, and assess their effectiveness. For example, control measures of predation on land by gulls and at sea by seals have been put in place where necessary.
Artificial nests have been installed on most colonies to provide shelter to incubating adults from heat waves or to chicks from storms and floods. Large rescue operations of eggs and chicks led by SANCCOB are ongoing, which brought over 7800 chicks over the past 20 years into the wild that would otherwise not have survived. Even a new colony is currently trying to be established in De Hoop by BirdLife South Africa to attract breeding birds within an existing Marine Protected Area, although this is a much longer-term intervention.
Need for healthy ecosystems
Thus, the only management tool we have left unused is the most crucial one, which would benefit breeding and non-breeding birds (see Carpenter-Kling et al. 2022, Scientific Reports), as well as all rescued chicks released by rehabilitation centres.
We need to impose purse-seine fishing exclusions that incorporates the birds’ foraging areas around key penguin breeding areas. Indeed, Butterworth’s claim that the benefits to penguins are negligible is going against evidence shown in several peer-reviewed scientific papers published by myself and several colleagues of mine (see for example Sydeman et al. 2021, ICES J Mar Sci). By contrast, no scientific peer-reviewed paper has been published by himself or his team to demonstrate that fishing exclusion would not benefit penguins or would be costly to the industry.
Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are known to benefit marine ecosystems and species, including African Penguins, but also often to fisheries operating around them, even pelagic fishery like tuna (Medoff et al. 2022, Science). A large analysis of 22 403 peer-reviewed scientific publications on the impact of MPA globally confirms the benefits of fully protected MPA to biodiversity and to fishery catch and income, as well as on carbon sequestration (see Jacquemont et al. 2022, One Earth). Benefits are equally recognised in South Africa (see Kirkman et al. 2021, African Journal of Marine Science).
In the context of Operation Phakisa, the South African government committed to have 5% of the marine Exclusive Economic Zone under protection by 2019, which was achieved in time, and to identify the next 5% by 2020, which is yet to be done.
The debate should, thus, be shifted on the identification of areas which protection would maximise benefits to biodiversity while minimising socio-economic costs. The proposal from the minister’s forum in 2021 would ensure the protection of 50-70% of the at-sea habitat of 90% of the African Penguins. These areas would increase the coverage of our EEZ from the current 5.4% to 5.7%, a drop in our ocean but a meaningful one. Our future depends on healthy ecosystems, and so does the African Penguin’s.
– Adj Prof Lorien Pichegru is Acting Director of the Coastal and marine research Institute, Nelson Mandela University.
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