It's World Penguin Day, and as part of Penguin Week, we need to talk about how the choices we are all making at the supermarket are leading to the extinction of Africa's remaining penguins...

No, your local grocery store is not selling penguin meat. One of the reasons that Africa's only species of penguin, the African black-footed penguin, is facing extinction is a product so commonplace and so ubiquitous with South African cuisine, that most of us walk right past it every time we visit a supermarket without thinking twice. Unless we change our consumer habits, African penguins are going to be functionally extinct in the wild between 2025 and 2035*.

*we apologise about the use of an earlier, incorrect date from a different source in an earlier version of this article

Image courtesy of PixaBay.

What is this mystery product?

Quite simply, our common seafoods - sardines, anchovies and pilchards - are the products directly linked to the decline in penguin numbers.

We've written about the decline in South Africa's sardine population before.

You may have been unaware, but sardines/pilchards have recently been added to the WWF SASSI Orange List - a seafood you should avoid. Remember that these ratings do not only mean that the fish itself is at risk, but also that the practices used to catch it are harmful to other species.

An ecological trap

African penguins are able to swim more than 20km from their colonies to find food - a strategy that has worked well for them throughout history. The colonies themselves are in semi-fixed locations, chosen over time to exploit areas with great fish stocks. Unfortunately, these are the stocks that we humans have depleted.

Photo by Imtiaz Ahmed.

Because of the permanent colony locations, penguins who need to swim further than 30km to find food are unable to eat enough to provide enough energy to feed both themselves and their young. This increased burden on the parents has resulted in large numbers of abandoned eggs and penguin chicks.

Young penguins that do hatch and are healthy enough to hunt for themselves fall into a trap - they focus on areas of cold water and high levels of phytoplankton, areas usually associated with large fish stocks. Unfortunately, they don't know that these areas have been depleted by humans, and they will return to the same fish-poor sites.

Photo by Selbe Lynn.

Where does your meal fit into the food web?

This situation creates an important challenge for us all - figuring out where our next meal fits into the food web. A fish as common and seemingly abundant as a sardine might seem like an endless food source, but abusing it can have far-reaching consequences.

The collapse of an ecosystem because of the overfishing of sardines and anchovies has happened before. After World War 2, Namibian waters were overfished for these species, and by the 1970s the stocks of these fish had collapsed completely. Their niche in the environment was filled by jellyfish and salps, and to this day the fish stocks have not recovered. 

How to save penguins from extinction

There are other reasons that the African penguin's numbers are dwindling. Since the 1920s, more than a million breeding pairs of African penguins inhabiting our coast have shrunk to a population of fewer than 18 000 pairs. The largest contributing factor to this historic decline has been the poaching of their eggs and stripping their island colonies of the guano that they needed to make nests. If you thought Boulders Beach has been around a long time, think again - that's just one of the places that a pair of penguins fled to after a larger colony was devastated in 1982.

Photo by Pe_Wu.

These historical practices have since been banned, and organisations such as SANCCOB, APSS and SANParks are working on projects such as artificial nests to repair the damage that was done or establishing new colonies. However, despite these efforts and despite humans no longer actively damaging colonies, the numbers are continuing to dwindle - so what can we do about that?

As we've highlighted, overfishing is one of the largest factors - you can consult the WWF SASSI List or use their convenient app to make sustainable seafood choices and help protect the ecosystems that the penguins depend on.

Critics of the overfishing cause are quick to point out that due to climate change, water temperatures are changing and causing the anchovies and sardines to move away from the colonies, to areas more fertile - still placing the penguins in the ecological trap. This is also true, but it is another reason that the declining numbers of fish stocks in the waters accessible to penguins need to be protected. One such proposal has been the implementation of marine protected areas or fishing exclusion zones around these colonies, and the banning of certain fishing practices, such as "fishing the line."

If you'd like to start making a difference TODAY to save the African penguin, please download the WWF SASSI app (and use it!) and show your support to APSS and SANCCOB in any way you can.

Become a Penguin Protector

With penguin numbers declining across the world, it is vital that we all do our part to save these bundles of joy - and that means improving the health of our ocean. Here are a few ways you can make a difference during Penguin Week, and beyond:

  • Support SANCCOB or the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary (APSS) – amazing organisations doing great work to save our wild penguins.
  • Have a Penguin Experience at the Two Oceans Aquarium, and part of your fee will go towards seabird conservation.
  • Become a Penguin Protector and minimise your impact on the ocean. Here are a few simple examples of things you can do:
Image courtesy of PixaBay.
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