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Story Publication logo July 17, 2023

‘A Crisis Unfolding Before Our Eyes’: The African Penguin Races Against Extinction


The African penguin is in decline due to land scarcity and overfishing. Environmentalists propose a...

A small group of African penguins on South Africa’s West Coast.
A small group of African penguins on South Africa’s West Coast. Image courtesy of SANCCOB. South Africa, 2022.

The African penguin is at risk of extinction in South Africa. Environmental experts weigh in on overfishing as a factor in the penguin's decline—and the balance between industry and conservation.

In Cape Town, South Africa, African penguin populations have dramatically decreased by 95% in the last decade due to overfishing of their prey, with experts predicting they may go extinct within the next decade. Temporary fishing restrictions around major penguin colonies have been implemented in order to mitigate the loss and provide a balance between conservation and industry. Researchers have referred to historical, as well as pending data to inspire new initiatives to preserve the African penguin, while still supporting the economic staple of the Western Cape fisheries.

The African penguin is the only penguin species that nests on the African continent, and it has remained under an “endangered” status since 2010. This is due to habitat loss as well as overfishing of their main prey of sardine. 

According to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) in South Africa, African penguin breeding pairs decreased from more than a million breeding pairs to just about ten thousand pairs over the last century.

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The temporary fishing restrictions declared by the DFFE in September 2022 on purse-seine fishing (a commercial fishing method that uses large nets) in the waters that surround Cape Town’s largest penguin colonies affect defined areas around Dassen Island, Robben Island, Stony Point, Dyer Island, St. Croix Island, and Bird Island.

“Habitat loss and predators have contributed to the dramatic loss of African penguin populations, but the biggest thing that’s driving continuous population decline is a lack of suitable food,” says Dr. Lauren Waller, a conservation scientist on behalf of the nonprofit organization, Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), at the Stony Point Penguin Preserve.

Near Betty’s Bay in Cape Town, penguins line the rocky beach at Stony Point Penguin Preserve. This was one of the protected penguin colonies under the temporary restrictions, yet still continues to see decline.

“[The colony] has lost over 95% of their population,” Dr. Waller said. “It really is no exaggeration that they are in trouble. Every year they reach the lowest level in population on record, and they are continuing to decline.”

As penguin population numbers drop, researchers at SANCCOB who specialize in coastal bird conservation are the first line of witnesses to the tragic loss of many marine species, and most poignantly, the African penguin.

“This crisis that they’re in is unfolding before our own eyes, and it’s difficult to return to those colonies and think, 'How much worse is it going to be this year?'” Dr. Waller said.

A Warning Sign

The dramatic decline of African penguin populations serves as a warning sign for other species who rely on sardine as a staple in their diets. The Cape Gannet is another native Capetonian seabird that has seen a 52.4% decline over the past 60 years due to habitat loss and food scarcity, according to BirdLife International.

The African penguin, among other species, is in fierce competition with commercial fisheries in Cape Town, racing against time as the fish stock available in the ocean depletes.

The Economic Value of Sardine

Not only are sardines an important food staple for the African penguin and other species, but they are also a cheap source of protein and an economic vehicle for many jobs in Cape Town. 

According to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF), the fisheries sector is worth around 8 billion rand a year and directly employs about 28,000 people. 

This dynamic often puts the African penguin and other marine species in constant competition with commercial fisheries for food availability. One purse-seine vessel can average up to 40 tons of fish in just one day, whereas African penguins need to eat about one pound of sardine per day. 

Imposing restrictions on purse-seine fisheries can, on one hand, help African penguins and other marine species, but on the other, they can damage the South African economy and food sources for humans. 

A study conducted by researchers Mike Bergh and Phillipe Lallemand before the restrictions were officially put in place predicted that 30% of the purse-seine fisheries’ sardine catch would be from protected areas, and therefore lost due to the restrictions. 

This equals about R2 billion in lost profits for the fisheries. 

“Fishing is a way of life for us here in Cape Town, " says Pieter Humphreys, a fisherman from Kalk Bay. “We were born into this, it is our life.” Humphrey’s family has been fishing in the Western Cape for five generations. 

Fishermen like Humphreys have lined the shores of Kalk Bay and Simons Town for decades. If their small-scale fisheries were to see the 30% decline predicted by Bergh and Lallemand, hundreds of families’ livelihoods would collapse.

A group of fishermen fish on the shore of Kalk Bay near Simon’s Town in Cape Town. Video by Danielle Filjon. South Africa, 2022.

The Dwindling Food Availability

The purse-seine fishing restrictions imposed by the DFFE were in effect from September 2022 to April 2023. After a few months of monitoring penguin colonies, experts at SANCCOB have reflected on and predicted the impact of the restrictions on the penguin colonies the rules were designed to protect. 

“There is a wealth of evidence that shows that they breed better if the fish stocks are better. If the food availability around their breeding colonies is good, then they breed better,” Dr. Waller said. "Critical components that contribute to penguin growth and population recovery such as adult survival rate, juvenile survival, and chick survival are reliant on food.” 

Food that is disappearing as quickly as the penguins are. 

“When the sardine stock is already low, competition between the penguins and commercial fisheries has that much more of an impact,” Dr. Waller says.

Fishing Restrictions 

Kalk Bay
Fishing boats line the shores of Kalk Bay on a breezy afternoon. Image by Danielle Filjon. South Africa, 2022.

The DFFE have set the Total Allowable Catch (TAC’s) for sardine a few times since the late nineties, which restricted how much sardine fisheries were allowed to catch in a given season. Historically, TAC’s have been anywhere between 50,000-200,000 tons, according to the DFFE. In 2020, the sardine TAC was set at 0 tons for the first time in the fishery’s history. 

“The TAC has not been affected by island closures [fishing restrictions]. Theoretically, the industry can still catch the same TAC. They are only restricted in where they can catch it,” says Dr. Carryn de Moor, senior research officer at the University of Cape Town. 

Dr. de Moor is extensively involved in the analysis of TAC levels,and says that “by restricting the area, the [fishing] industry has ‘lost opportunities’ and thus has less chance of catching their full quota” of their full TAC. 

After continued monitoring of a gradually increasing sardine stock, the 2022 TAC for sardine was then brought slowly back up to a range of 5,000-18,000 tons depending on the region of the Cape peninsula, according to the DFFE. 

“This increase had little to no effect on the populations of the African penguin,” said Dr. de Moor. 

Despite efforts to mitigate food shortages for penguins through TAC management, the species continues to be endangered.

An Outlier Colony 

This phenomenon baffled conservationists in the Western Cape, but there is one outlier penguin colony that is not following the dramatic decline of the others that proves fishing restrictions around certain islands where penguins breed and nest could work after all. 

Nestled in between Simon’s Town and Cape Point, on a grove teeming with life and sea breeze, is the Boulders Beach African penguin colony. Boulders is located near Simon’s Town in the Western Cape, and it is the most popular and thriving destination for the African penguin. The Boulders colony is also the most accessible way for tourists to view and get as close as possible to the African penguins. 

If you have seen a photo of an African penguin on the internet, it was most likely taken at Boulders.

A small group of African Penguins gathered at the Boulders Beach colony near Simon's Town. Image courtesy of SANCCOB. South Africa, 2022.

The penguins who live at the Boulders colony have shown no major population dips throughout decades, despite having neighboring colonies’ populations decline rapidly.

Researchers were keen on investigating what helps the Boulders colony thrive. Why are the Boulders numbers booming amid this crisis?

“The Boulders colony is exposed to the same predation threats, the same issues with breeding habitat, the disturbance of people and vehicles,” said Dr. Waller. “If you look at the overall population, you see a nosedive in population numbers in South Africa. But if you compare the line to the Boulders penguin colony, that line is kept steady through the years. The Boulders penguin colony is not showing the same trend as the overall species decline.”

Image courtesy of DFFE. South Africa, 2021.

Further analysis proved that there was a relationship between the more abundant food availability for the Boulders colony and their success because they hunted in a protected oceanic zone.

“If you look at sea, where they feed, they are in a fairly protected area in False Bay,” Dr. Waller said. “There’s no fishing allowed there, and so the level of at-sea threats and the threats of reducing food availability are somewhat mitigated."

No commercial fishing operations means no competition for food, means better penguin survival rates overall. “This gives us a sense that we can do a lot better for the penguins if we look at the trend of Boulders,” Dr. Waller said.

However, it is not as simple as restricting fishing off of the coast of Cape Town. The commercial fishing sector of the economy is a large industry, and restricting fishing could damage the livelihood of thousands employed by the industry.

The temporary regulations imposed in September 2022 restricted fishing in coastal waters near the fragile penguin colonies, instead of outright banning commercial fishing activity. This could be the balance that conservationists and fisheries are pining for.

Next Steps

Currently, DFFE is still working on a 2023 TAC model for sardine, taking into account the measurable effects of the fishing restrictions that ended in early 2023 that are yet to be quantified.

The temporary restrictions on purse-seine fishing have ended, and researchers are currently collecting data on how the restrictions around the major African penguin colonies have affected penguin populations across the Western Cape peninsula.

We have historical data from Boulders that could set a precedent of more defined fishing restrictions around their colonies which can improve their population numbers. These restrictions might not be the final answer for their preservation. But they could bring the penguin survival rate to a sustainable level and mitigate the effects of habitat loss and climate change, which are other factors that are felt throughout the ecosystem by many species.

Humans and the environment are linked more closely than many people realize. We are part of the environment and it is a part of us. Conservation strives to balance our place in the ecosystem so that we both may thrive. It is the hope of both conservationists and the South African fisheries alike to find a balance that is sustainable for the future. Historical data "gives us a sense that we can do a lot better for the penguins if we look at the [Boulders] trend,” says Dr. Waller, suggesting a balance between the fishing industry and the environment that can be a sustainable solution for this crisis.


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