WATCH: Conservation suffering as government delays put African penguins at risk

The annual African penguin breeding population is a good indicator of the amount of prey available. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

The annual African penguin breeding population is a good indicator of the amount of prey available. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Oct 6, 2022


The recent announcement by the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Barbara Creecy, to temporarily halt fishing around Cape African penguin colonies includes a reference to the establishment of an Independent International Science Panel.

The panel aims to provide the department with long-term guidance on how to balance the future of the African penguin with the commercial, subsistence and social demands of the fishing industry and the people who are dependent on it.

Together, the World Wildlife Fund South Africa, BirdLife South Africa, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (Sanccob) and the Endangered Wildlife Trust said the announcement “explicitly acknowledges the importance of island closures in enhancing successful African penguin breeding efforts. It is principally based on the recommendations that were made almost a year ago jointly by state fisheries and conservation scientists.”

But this may have come a little too late as the closures were only implemented after the small pelagic industry had already caught most of its quota, and therefore the ban may be too late to have the intended effect.

The conservation groups said on Wednesday that adding to the delays, “the call for nominations to this panel has only just been advertised and it is unlikely that this process will be completed by the time the interim closure lapses in January 2023”.

“We are deeply concerned that, with all these delays, we will have another breeding season come and go without any precautionary protections given to the penguins. Given the perilous and rapid decline of Africa’s only penguin species, we cannot afford another squandered year,” the groups said.

Bearing in mind that a clear decision on future measures will only follow after the Independent International Science Panel has made its recommendations, the groups said the following steps should be taken urgently:

1. A highly respected, knowledgeable and balanced panel needs to be constituted as rapidly as possible to examine the available facts that can underpin a strong decision, including taking into account the argument for invoking the precautionary principle.

2. A totally transparent process must be run to secure the full buy-in of both the NGOs and the fishing industry including the appointment of panel members, and their credentials, final agreed-upon terms of reference, and the time frame of review.

3. A decision to ensure that the period between the intended lifting of the interim closure and when the panel recommendations are enacted is covered. This must be done in a way that takes into account the interests of both African penguins and the most vulnerable people associated with the fishing industry.

4. An ecosystem approach to fisheries must be prioritised across all fisheries so that all species and their respective interactions are considered in decision making, as well as the interests of all of those dependent on the ocean as a source of their livelihoods and well-being.

5. Finally, it is important to note that the annual African penguin breeding population is a good indicator of the amount of prey available (sardine and anchovy) in the Southern Benguela Marine Ecosystem and closely follows the abundance of the sardine resource.

The penguins have sounded the alarm and the depleted status of their shared sardine resource should be of major concern also to the small pelagic industry.

If this situation is not urgently addressed, it could result in a long-term collapse of the small pelagic fishery in South Africa. This tough lesson has been learnt in Namibia, where the fishery has had to remain closed since 2018 due to overfishing.

Current Affairs