Every year thousands of tourists flock to Boulders Beach in Simon’s Town to witness the African penguins fish and flounder in the water. But little do these penguins know that they are caught in a death trap.
The African Penguin that flourishes at the southern tip of Africa could well be facing extinction. They are finding themselves caught in an ‘ecological trap’ caused by overfishing and climate change. This means that animals unwittingly settle in an environment which is being rapidly degraded.
African Penguins rely on the ocean as a source of food, but due to overfishing the natural stock is being depleted. Schools of fish such as anchovies and sardines which were once abundant in the Atlantic Ocean are running low on supply.
The young are the vulnerable
The young birds swim thousands of kilometres from where they hatch to find food off the South African and Namibian coast. Only, when they get there, there is limited stock.
A study conducted by Natural Environment Research Council suggests that this phenomenon accounts for the rapid drop of 50% of the African Penguin population. The study used satellite trackers on 54 juvenile penguins from eight colonies covering the species’ breeding and feeding grounds off the coast of Namibia.
It is particularly problematic as it affects the juvenile birds who still need to grow, eat and breed.
“These were once reliable cues for prey-rich waters, but climate change and industrial fishing have depleted forage fish stocks in this system,” the study authors wrote.
Instead, they are eating stocks gobies and jelly fish off the Namibian coast, which doesn’t provide enough sustenance.
Where are the fish?
Global warming has affected the ocean more than it has affected anything else, which acts as a heat sink. This heat input has changed the temperature and salinity of the water off the coast of Africa. As result, the traditional penguin prey has shifted east and out of reach.
Young penguins are still learning to fend for themselves, but in increasingly challenging circumstances. At this stage of their lives they’re at risk of choosing the wrong habitat or falling into an ecological trap.