Big changes for Little Penguins

(c) JJ Harrison

How to manage Little Penguin populations in the face of increasing tourism, urbanisation and threats to our coasts from a changing climate? These were some of the questions addressed at a workshop held as part of Australia’s 14th biennial coastal management conference in Hobart this week.

Attendees from government, industry, volunteer groups and NGOs came together to share their experiences. The workshop drew upon this expertise to focus on the complex issues for Little Penguin management in southern Australia. Key issues discussed were best practise of volunteer guided tours, urban development around penguin rookeries, record keeping and data collection, monitoring technology, awareness raising, eco-tourism and the future for Little Penguin management.

Weighing in at 1 kg and at around 30 cm tall, Little Penguins are the smallest of all penguin species. Their taxonomic name, Eudyptula minor, means ‘good little diver’ and they live up to their reputation by diving up to 70 metres to sustain their diet of small fish, squid and krill. Although their bodies are perfectly designed for the 10-15 km they swim each day, with waterproof feathers and flipper-shaped wings, they also spend a lot of their time on land, where they mate, nest and breed.

Endemic to southern Australia and New Zealand, the Little Penguin is not currently classed as under threat, but their estimated population of 470,000 is decreasing, as they face many new and increasing challenges on land and at sea. Penguins are most vulnerable when they come to shore at dawn and dusk and some of the most common land-based obstacles they face are the result of our increasingly urbanised coasts; light pollution at night, noise, car traffic, weed infestations, predation from cats and dogs or constructed sea barriers. At sea, they are under threat from gill nets, rubbish, changes to water quality (heavy metals, oil and sewerage). The destruction of their breeding habitat is one of the major drivers of their decreasing population, while climate change impacts can influence feeding and predation interactions at sea. Increasing tourist numbers and lack of penguin awareness can also place pressure on this remarkable species.

Managing penguin rookeries and nearshore environments with multiple human uses can be challenging, however the Little Penguin workshop showed that volunteers, industries, communities and government can work together to develop and integrate best practise penguin protection. Some positive conservation initiatives from land managers include constructing fences around colonies to keep dogs out, building burrows to provide safe homes and planting native species to provide cover for nesting and moulting.

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