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Stony Brook researchers find chinstrap penguin population plunged nearly 60%

A chinstrap penguin. On a recent Greenpeace expedition to Antarctica, researchers from Stony Brook University found that the chinstrap penguin population has plummeted by nearly 60% since the last count in 1971. ANDREW SHIVA/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS VIA CC BY SA 4.0

Stony Brook researchers found on a recent Greenpeace expedition to Antarctica that the chinstrap penguin population has plummeted by nearly 60% since it was last counted in 1971.

Dr. Heather Lynch, associate professor of ecology and evolution at Stony Brook University, used drone technology and individually hand counted the penguins to properly count their population. These observations helped the team determine the rate of the penguin population decline. 

“It was one of our biggest priorities for going back and going to see if Elephant Island had experienced the same decline we were seeing elsewhere,” Lynch said. “It turns out they have.”

Recorded in breeding pairs, researchers found the total numbers of pairs to be 52,786 — nearly 60% less of their total of 122,550 pairs in 1971.

Considered to be of “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, these results display an alarming drop in the numbers of chinstrap penguins that inhabit the island.

The rocky, snowy terrain of Elephant Island is a very steep and sloped nesting place for the penguins, making them difficult to access. Lynch cited this as a reason why the penguins have been so understudied for the past 50 years.

“These areas are extremely hard to get to,” Lynch said. “It’s difficult for ships to get close and for people to get on shores.” 

Chinstrap penguins come back to the same location every year. Alex Borowicz, Stony Brook researcher, explains that they are easier to monitor because of how relatively close they remain to the island.

“Penguins reliably return to the same nesting colonies every year,” he said. “It’s much easier to observe how their populations change than it would be in seals, whales, fish or even other seabirds.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2019 was the second warmest year on record. The NOAA concluded that Antarctica’s sea ice was shrinking, with sea ice currently at the seventh smallest size on record.

The shrinking of sea ice and the warming of oceans isn’t the sole cause of the decline, according to Borowicz. Krill, chinstrap penguins’ main food source, reside in these waters and on the edge of the ice. When the krill population goes down, the population of the animals that feed on them will too.

“When we see changes in penguin populations, we have to start asking questions about whether something is happening to their food,” Borowicz said.

Climate change is still believed to be the main reason for the drop in krill. But researchers also question what role overfishing and unregulated fishing play as well.

“What proportion of the changes that we see are related to climate change?” Lynch said. “What proportion is related to fishing?” 

When the expedition concludes, the team of researchers will immediately compile their data and write a summary for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The organization, part of the Antarctic Treaty System, manages the krill fisheries in Antarctica.

This research will be put together, drafted and sent to the United Nations, in hopes that they will foster a new treaty to help the oceans. 

Julia Zanolli, global media lead of the Protect the Oceans campaign, said the expedition highlights a stronger need to protect the oceans and the animals that inhabit it.

“[The goal] is to secure a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the United Nations and protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030,” she said.

The United Nations will be holding an intergovernmental conference from March 23 to April 3 on ocean conservation, which Greenpeace believes is a confirmation of the urgency to preserve the oceans. 

“Today less than 1% of our global oceans are fully protected,” Zanolli said. “There is no legal framework that allows the creation of ocean sanctuaries in the high seas.”

The expedition was a collaboration with Greenpeace, which, founded in 1971, is an independent global organization based in Amsterdam dedicated to preserving the planet. It’s made several strides towards providing eco-friendly solutions, such as successfully convincing Samsung to use 100% clean, renewable energy in America, Europe and China by 2020. 

Their new initiative, the Protect the Oceans campaign, is calling on corporations to reduce their plastic footprint and campaigning to establish a network of ocean sanctuaries. This campaign would include a pole-to-pole expedition from the Arctic to the Antarctic while researching locations and wildlife threatened by pollution, oil drilling and climate change.

Currently aboard two of their ships, the Esperanza and the Arctic Sunrise, the Greenpeace crew are joined by actors Marion Cotillard and Gustaf Skarsgard on the voyage, which started in April of last year and will conclude this February.

The entire Greenpeace expedition will be completed on Feb 17. For its last stop, they were joined by Lynch and other scientists from Stony Brook and Northeastern University between Jan. 5 to Feb. 8, who studied the decline of the chinstrap penguins population on Elephant Island.

Lynch hopes that her collaboration with Greenpeace opens up the discussion more about the effect of human activity on climate change.

“We are part of this story and the more we learn about the Antarctic, the easier it is to make the case that we should protect it,” she said.

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