Banner images by Ross Wanless, Peter Chadwick, Frans Vandevalle, Arthur Roberts
The waters off the southern African coast are one of the most productive in the world, thanks to the cold upwelled waters of the Benguela Current bringing nutrients to the surface layers. In addition to the Southern Ocean specialists such as albatrosses and petrels that frequent our waters, South Africa has several species of seabirds that breed on the mainland or inshore islands. Many of these birds are under threat from human activities including fishing, oil spills and development as well as climate change.
The Coastal Seabirds programme aims to conserve some of these threatened and iconic seabirds. Our work includes species-focused projects such as those on the African Penguin as well as larger scale efforts to ensure fish stocks are managed to take seabirds into account and to protect important seabird habitat.
The African Penguin is one of the most iconic and charismatic seabirds in South Africa. Their population has decreased by about 80% in the last 60 years, as a result of historical egg harvesting, predation by seals, poor fisheries management and an altered distribution of prey. Penguins eat mainly sardines and anchovies but in South Africa, the distribution of these fish has shifted from the west coast to the south coast and there is localised competition from the fishing industry around breeding colonies. Most penguin colonies are on the west coast, and penguins there now face food shortages. We are working on an ambitious project to establish new penguin colonies close to abundant sources of fish.
The west coast marine ecosystem is strongly influenced by the availability of just three species as sources of food – anchovy, sardine and red-eye (collectively referred to as forage fish). The entire ecosystem depends on there being sufficient forage fish at the base of the food chain. Many species depend on these small fish, from the commercially important hake and yellowtail that eat the forage fish, to the sharks and tuna that eat those bigger fish, to seabirds, seals, dolphins, and whales. Forage fish are the main prey for three species of endemic seabirds, African Penguins, Cape Gannets and Cape Cormorants.
Fishing quotas have historically been set without considering the distribution of fish and this has not changed with the shift in fish distribution from the west to the south coast. We are working with stakeholders and government to ensure the fishery management takes non-uniform fish distributions into account. We are also working to develop a suite of thresholds for indicator species, which include other seabirds, seals and even jellyfish that could indicate poor ecosystem function and trigger management action.
Marine Protection: identifying and protecting important seabird habitat
Part of ensuring that seabirds have enough food is to create protected areas for them where fishing does not take place. Preliminary results show that creating a 20 km fishing exclusion zone around an African Penguin breeding colony can have positive effects on both adult ands chicks, since the penguins don’t have to swim as far to find food. Along with other partners, we are collecting data to demonstrate this effect and engaging with the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries to use this information to conserve penguins and other seabirds.
We are grateful to the following donors for their support of this the Coastal Seabird Conservation work