Across the mainland hōiho or yellow-eyed penguins (YEP) are having a tough time of it. This year the number of breeding pairs on Otago Peninsula was only about 200 compared to 600 in the 1990’s. Otago University researcher Thomas Mattern reports the outlook for populations around the South Island is bleak “the situation is all but lost, but we need to act and we don’t have much time’.
With an estimated breeding population of 1700 pair, the YEP is one of the rarest species of penguins in the world, around 60% of the population is thought to breed on New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands with the rest on the south-eastern coast of the South Island. However, little is known about the sub-Antarctic population and in the southern South Island mass mortality events from unknown toxins and barracouta attacks regularly decimate numbers.
Thirty-five years of sea surface data from Boulder Beach on Otago Peninsula shows that sea temperature is the main environmental influence, with lower fish stock during warmer periods. However, other factors play a significant role, the impact of fisheries is poorly understood due to a lack of data and fisheries monitoring. Predation both at sea and on land remains an issue in some areas and unregulated tourism is an important and growing threat. While humans love to see hōiho walk across a wild beach, hōiho do not feel the same at all about humans and become incredibly stressed by the mere presence of a human.
Yellow-eyed penguins have just been upgraded to Endangered and researchers agree that South Island hōiho are facing almost certain extinction by 2060.
Thankfully on Banks Peninsula, our small hōiho population is remaining steady. We have a strong collaborative conservation program on the Wildside to control predators on land. Banks Peninsula is blessed with many sheltered bays and penguins are doing especially well in bays with restricted human access. Landowners protect the penguin colonies fiercely against these impacts and each nest is monitored closely by BPCT, DOC and CCC staff. If a penguin is in trouble, we take it into expert veterinary care as soon as possible and penguins are able to recuperate with dedicated intensive care nurses. All of this, just to ensure the population holds steady.
2017 was a year of highlights for the Banks Peninsula hōiho team. We had our first microchipped chicks return, in a species where >80% of chicks do not make it through their first year at sea, this is monumental. Eight juvenile birds, in their first year, were recorded and we hope some of these will remain and breed. A total of 25 birds were found with four nests and six chicks fledging. Only three penguins died during the breeding season.
These small successes always lead to hope that hōiho nests will increase, that more chicks will be born and fledge and that they will return again next year. But yellow-eyed penguins have just been upgraded to Endangered and researchers agree that South Island hōiho are facing almost certain extinction by 2060.