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Antarctic penguin colonies decline by as much as 77% in last 50 years

Ushuaia, Argentina  – WEBWIRE

Scientists surveying chinstrap penguin colonies in the Antarctic have found drastic reductions in many colonies, with some declining by as much as 77% since they were last surveyed almost 50 years ago. 

The independent researchers, on a Greenpeace expedition to the region, found that every single colony surveyed on Elephant Island, an important habitat northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, had declined. The number of chinstrap penguins on Elephant Island has dropped almost 60% since the last survey in 1971, with a total count of only 52,786 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins, plummeting from previous survey estimates of around 122,550 pairs.

Campaigners this week have been installing ‘disappearing’ penguin ice sculptures in capitals around the world, from Seoul to London, Buenos Aires to Cape Town, to demand urgent action to protect ocean wildlife with a Global Ocean Treaty. [See images here].

Dr Heather J. Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University, one of the expedition’s leads, said: “Such significant declines suggest that the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem is fundamentally changed from 50 years ago, and that the impacts of this are rippling up the food web to species like chinstrap penguins. While several factors may have a role to play, all the evidence we have points to climate change as being responsible for the changes we are seeing.”

Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign, said: “ A world with fewer penguins is a less happy place. As wildlife struggles, we urgently need sanctuaries free from harmful human activity not only in the Antarctic, but across the world’s oceans, so marine life like penguins have the space to recover from human activity and adapt to our rapidly changing climate. To do that, it’s imperative that governments agree on a Global Ocean Treaty this year.” 

The team of scientists, from Stony Brook and Northeastern University, has also been surveying a series of large but relatively unknown chinstrap penguin colonies on Low Island, using manual and drone surveying techniques. This will be the first time the island, thought to have around 100,000 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins, has been properly surveyed from land, with results to follow.


[1] Greenpeace’s ships the Esperanza and Arctic Sunrise are in the Antarctic for the conclusion of Greenpeace’s Pole to Pole expedition. See here for a map of the ‘Pole to Pole’ route.

[2] The expedition is documenting threats to the world’s oceans as part of Greenpeace’s campaign for a Global Ocean Treaty, which could lay the groundwork for a network of ocean sanctuaries covering 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

[3] Greenpeace has been campaigning for the establishment of three Antarctic sanctuary proposals, which after being rejected in 2019, are due to be discussed again at this year’s Antarctic Ocean Commission (CCAMLR) meeting in October. These sanctuaries would offer protection for many of the colonies being surveyed.

[4] Dr Heather J. Lynch is IACS Endowed Chair of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University

[5] Frida Bengtsson is a senior ocean campaigner at Greenpeace Nordic

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