FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
FROM: Vince Stricherz
DATE: June 3, 2002
Falklands penguins forage far enough from home to get into trouble
As the world's spiraling population creates greater demand for resources, the
southern Atlantic Ocean is becoming a more popular spot to consider for fishing
and oil exploration. But University of Washington zoologists and a Falkland
Islands researcher have found that such interest could prove detrimental to
Falklands penguins, whose numbers already could be declining.
Since 1995, Dee Boersma, a UW zoology professor; David Stokes, now at Sonoma
State University in California; and Ian Strange, who operates the New Island
South Conservation Trust in the Falklands, have monitored behavior and movements
of three penguin species ? Gentoos, Rockhoppers and Magellanics. The birds live
on the New Island preserve at the far west edge of the Falklands, about 300
miles off the coast of Argentina. To track how far they range for food, the
researchers attached transmitters to the penguins and found that, while Gentoos
tended to stay within 20 miles of the preserve, Rockhoppers, the smallest of the
three species, swam 180 miles or more.
England, which owns the Falklands, and Argentina fought a war over possession of
the islands 20 years ago. But in recent years the British, Falklands and
Argentine governments have forged closer ties, and have formed a Special
Cooperation Area for oil and gas exploration. That zone lies about 70 miles
southwest of New Island, well within the range of foraging Rockhoppers.
In addition, fleets from several nations are licensed to fish within Falklands
territorial waters, which are adjacent to large areas of the south Atlantic that
are not under the control of any nation.
For Boersma, a leading conservation biologist, and Strange, who founded the New
Island South Conservation Trust, the situation is worrisome. That's because oil
spills and being caught up in fishing nets are among the most serious perils
penguins can face in the open ocean, and there is evidence that some of the
Falklands penguin species already are suffering declining numbers, Boersma
"The penguins don't pay attention to national and international boundaries, so
we have to figure out some way to better reduce conflicts between people and
organisms in the open ocean," she said.
More than 60 breeding species of birds live in the Falklands, and three-quarters
of them can be found on New Island, Strange said. Since 1971, he has operated
the preserve on half of the 8-mile-long, half-mile-wide island. The property is
now permanently protected as a charitable trust. A field station named for donor
Geoffrey Hughes can accommodate researchers and students. Strange, a
self-described naturalist, is a native of Lincolnshire, England, who moved to
the Falklands more than 40 years ago. He wanted to establish the preserve to
protect wildlife and build a research base.
"We're not going to stop oil exploration, I'm not that naïve," he said. "But we
may be able to come up with some strategy or plan that will help industry do the
Strange teamed up with Boersma and Stokes and underwrote the research in the
hope of finding what kind of threats might await the penguins that call his
island home. Additional funding for the research came from the Exxon-Mobil
Educational Alliance, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the New Island South
Conservation Trust and the Falkland Islands government. Their findings were
published in the British journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater
Ecosystems, in a special May edition dealing with the southwest Atlantic marine
The research started with just a few birds in 1995, using battery-operated
transmitters ? about 1 inch by 3 inches ? attached with a special epoxy to the
penguins' backs. The devices send signals to the Argo satellite, which tracks
their movement. The transmitters remain in place until the batteries go dead,
then are removed.
>From 1998 through 2000, Boersma, Stokes and Strange tracked two Gentoo, 18
Magellanic and 26 Rockhopper penguins. They found that the Gentoos stayed the
closest and Rockhoppers went the farthest. In addition, all of the Rockhoppers
that took long trips at least passed through the Special Cooperation Area, and
some spent several days foraging for fish in that zone, where future oil
exploration is possible. That was a surprise to many people, Boersma said, and
it emphasizes how much isn't yet known about many species.
"If we know more about other organisms and when they use particular areas and
resources, then we can manage our own activities around that," she said.
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