Scientists Press For Marine Sanctuary After Massive Penguin Chick Die-Off

Only two Adelie chicks survived of those born to 36,000 adults in Antarctica.

Scientists are seeking increased environmental protections after an entire breeding season of Adelie penguin chicks was wiped out in a key colony in east Antarctica.

Only two chicks survived the massive die-off among the thousands born to 18,000 pairs of breeding adults, researchers reported. Scientists believe most of the dead chicks starved as frequently absent parents were forced to travel farther in search of food due to the effects of climate change. 

International officials began meeting Monday in Australia to consider a marine sanctuary in the area to help avoid another disaster.

Scientists have characterized the die-off on Terre Adelie as a “catastrophic breeding failure.”

Ironically, in a time of global warming, the most significant factor this year was that the adult penguins were blocked from the sea by more ice than usual, forcing them to travel longer distances before they could swim for food while the chicks starved. The extra ice was due to the breakup of the Mertz glacier in 2010 as waters warmed.

The chicks were also drenched by unusual rains followed by low temperatures, which caused many to freeze to death, according to researchers.

French scientist Yan Ropert-Coudet, who has been monitoring the colony  with colleagues from the French National Center for Scientific Research, told Agence France-Presse that conditions are set for such die-offs to “happen more frequently” because of floating Mertz ice as well as changing winds and temperatures.

The recent catastrophe was only the second such incident in 40 years, The Associated Press reported. Four years ago, not a single chick survived in the colony due to similar circumstances. The breeding pairs in the colony then numbered over 20,000. 

The penguins face even more survival pressure with a push to open krill fisheries in the area so that the crustaceans can be commercially harvested. Krill, a major part of the birds’ diet, are particularly sensitive to ocean temperature changes.

“The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adelie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable,” Rod Downie, head of polar programs for the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement. 

As part of an effort led by France and Australia, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is meeting through Oct. 27 in Hobart, on the Australian island state of Tasmania, to discuss creating a massive marine protected area close to 400,000 square miles in the area. The commission, whose members include the European Union and 24 other nations, was established by treaty nearly 40 years ago to conserve marine life in the Antarctic. Plans were initiated in 2009 to establish a series of such sanctuaries, but they have been stymied by struggles over fishing rights. 

Last year a deal strongly backed by the United States and New Zealand was reached to create a 600,000-square-mile marine protected area around Antarctica’s Ross Sea. It’s the largest marine reserve on the planet, according to AFP.

University of Delaware researchers have concluded that 60 percent  of Antarctica’s Adelie habitat may not be conducive to penguin survival by the end of the 21st century because of global warming.

When California sea lions suffered increasing numbers of pup strandings and die-offs two years ago, scientists also concluded that the pups were starving or striking out on their own to find food because nursing mothers had to stay away for longer periods to seek fish that had moved to cooler waters amid climate changes.