According to researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand, yes they could. The Yellow-Eyed Penguin or ‘Hoiho’, native to New Zealand has seen its numbers dramatically decrease in recent years to the point where some researchers are believe that there is no chance of its long term survival.
Numbers of Hoiho on the Lower South Island have seen a significant decline over the past few years with preliminary estimates of breeding pairs for this season showing a 6% decline on last year. These figures, originally released to the Otago Daily Times by the Department of Conservation show predicted numbers at 246 this year, down from 261 the previous year.
Other areas across New Zealand where the Yellow-Eyed penguin reside have also seen a decrease in numbers; whilst the numbers from the northward areas are similar to that of the previous years, the further south you go the more evident this decrease becomes. Compared to the previous year numbers in the Otago Peninsula is down by 2%, and more southerly again in the Catlins there has been a decline of 10%.
This has been the worst year for expected recorded numbers of Hoiho on the Otago and Southland coastline for 26 years, and researchers fear it is only going to get worse.
But what has been the main cause of this rapid decline? Unfortunately not enough research has been conducted to say for certain, although according to researchers there are a large number of possible contributing factors and none of them will be easy to resolve.
One of the elements believed to be causing the decimation of this species is the rising water temperatures. Disease is another issue, with an outbreak of diphtheria killing many penguin chicks earlier this year. People flocking to the beaches in the Catlins and Dunedin were also a likely factor in their decline. But the main cause now being cited by conservation groups is in fact the commercial fishing trade, specifically through the use of set netting.
The practice of set netting – anchoring a net to the sea floor using weights – is a popular practice in New Zealand. Set netting includes cast nets, drag nets and bait nets and whilst there are many restrictions in place such as length, mesh size of nets and certain areas where set netting is prohibited, none of these areas extend into the Hoiho’s natural foraging grounds. In fact penguins off the Southlands have almost no protection from commercial fishing practices.
According to Kevin Hague, the Chief Executive of the conservation group Forest and Bird, unlike in previous years where disease and high temperatures were causing deaths on land the Hoiho are now disappearing at sea. A recent survey conducted of the island sanctuary known as Codfish Island, or Whenua Hou discovered that almost half of the breeding population had disappeared, decreasing from 24 nests down to just 14. Between October 2015 and October 2016 there were 14 reported Hoiho deaths all of which were due to being caught in nets. 13 of these were reported by Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) observers, and with only 13% of all trawlers having an observer present it is believed that there are many deaths which are going unreported. The actual number of Hoiho deaths caused by set nets is expected to be in the hundreds.
Forest and Bird are now calling on the Government to step in an assist in protecting this endangered species. The Ministry for Primary Industries has said that it is focusing on having more observers or cameras established on set netting vessels, an act which marks the beginning of their attempts to curb the amount of Hoiho deaths attributed to these nets. They are undergoing extensive research to understand the true impact of the commercial fishing industry on the Yellow-Eyed penguin, to identify exactly what the main issues are and implement controls to decrease the threat posed through set netting.
Tackling this particular issue may be a short term solution in the fight to save the Hoiho, and with the multitude of other issues contributing to the decline in the species it may not be enough. But it is indeed a start in saving this rare and beautiful species.
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