What We Do
Our oceans have an amazing diversity and abundance of life. They also play a huge role in sustaining human populations. Seabirds are one of the most threatened group of birds in the world, with 15 out of 22 species of albatross threatened with extinction. They are also an important indicator of ocean health, and it’s our mission to conserve them.
Marine top predators in the Benguela Current Marine Ecosystem are strongly influenced by the availability of small pelagic fish (also known as bait fish or forage fish) such as anchovy, sardine and red-eye. Forage fish play a crucial role in regulating both predators but also plankton, on which they feed, and are often seen as the most important components of these upwelling ecosystems. Many predators depend on forage 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 forage fish and this has not changed with the shift in forage fish distribution from the west to the south coast. We are working with stakeholders and the government to ensure that fishery management takes non-uniform forage fish distributions into account when setting annual catch limits. We are also working to develop a suite of thresholds for indicator species, which include seabirds, seals and even jellyfish that could indicate poor ecosystem function and trigger management action.
We are also an active member of the Responsible Fisheries Alliance which drives responsible fishing practices in southern African to ensure healthy marine ecosystems underpin a robust seafood industry.
The dire status of many of our seabird populations requires targeted interventions to help save the species. One of our species programmes focuses on the iconic African Penguins, which have decreased in number by over 90% since the 1900s. We aim to protect the penguins on land – through establishing new colonies – and at sea – by tracking their movements to find important foraging areas. Marion Island is a South African territory in the south Atlantic which is home to several threatened seabird species, including nearly half of the world’s Wandering Albatrosses. Unfortunately, these birds are threatened by an unlikely but voracious predator: the house mouse. We are partnering with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries and others in a collaborative effort, Mouse-Free Marion, to eradicate mice from the island, using methods employed in other successful eradications.
One way to ensure adequate prey supplies to seabirds that rely on forage fish is to create fishery exclusion zones in areas that they regularly visit to minimize competition for these resources. Preliminary results show that creating 20 km fishing exclusion zones around African Penguin breeding colonies can have positive effects on both adult and chicks, since the penguins don’t have to expend as much energy to find food. Along with other partners, we are collecting data to demonstrate these effects and we are engaging with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries to use this information to conserve African Penguins and other seabirds.