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Super Rare Penguins Could Soon Disappear Forever

"Nearly half the population has been drowned.”

Codfish Island, off the coast of New Zealand, is typically budding with rare, striking yellow-eyed penguins and their babies.

But this year, conservationists were stunned to find that nearly half of the penguin population on the island has vanished.

Considered a sanctuary island, Codfish Island is free from many common predators, and the penguins living there were once thriving. Now, experts are pointing to a different threat — one introduced by humans.

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The endangered birds, of whom there are less than 2,000 breeding pairs left worldwide, are getting caught and drowning in the nets of commercial fishing operations while out foraging for food in the ocean. The specific nets, called gillnets, are virtually transparent underwater and trap unsuspecting penguins inside along with other marine birds and mammals.
 

In a new global study from Bird Life International, which for the first time examined the prevalence of penguin bycatch, researchers determined that it’s not just yellow-eyed penguins, who are also known as hoiho, who are at significant risk from common fishing materials. Thirteen out of the world’s 18 species of penguins also face drowning in the same deadly nets.

“Unlike previous years where disease and high temperatures caused deaths on land, this year birds have disappeared at sea,” Kevin Hague, chief executive for New Zealand’s Forest & Bird department, told The Guardian. “There is an active set net fishery within the penguins’ foraging ground, and the indications are that nearly half the population has been drowned in one or more of these nets.”

This year, rangers found only 14 penguin nests on the island, compared to last year’s 24. While the difference may not seem drastic, the decrease is significant because it signals yet another decline in one of the few remaining yellow-eyed penguin colonies.

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The fragile populations, which are now at their lowest number in 27 years, have been dropping in other habitats too, causing researchers to believe the recent net deaths are giving the yellow-eyed penguins a “helping hand towards extinction.”

Sue Murray, general manager of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust, said her organization is working with others to help the birds, and aims to connect with fisheries to encourage them to examine their impacts and learn how to prevent more deaths.  

“We have huge concerns for the future of hoiho given their rapid decline,” Murray said in a press release. “Our focus must be on the marine environment where [the birds] spend at least half of their life as it is unlikely that terrestrial impacts are a major factor here … [We] are working with urgency to address this situation.”

Though small, these beloved birds — who even appear on New Zealand’s $5 bill — are bringing conservation groups together to test new ways to keep them away from the dangerous nets.  

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One solution currently being considered is the introduction of black and white sheets that would be attached to the transparent fishing nets to alert birds in the water of their presence. Luckily, this method has shown success in reducing penguin bycatch at other fisheries by over 90 percent.

“This has been a major collaborative effort from the penguin research community, but the hard work starts now,” Rory Crawford, gillnet program manager for Bird Life International, said in a press release. “There needs to be a direct engagement with the fishing industry and management authorities to tackle this problem."

To help save the yellow-eyed penguin from extinction, you can make a donation to Bird Life International.