A study by researchers at the University of Exeter and the University of Cape Town has shown that endangered African penguin populations have dramatically declined due climate change and overfishing.
Penguins primarily feed on sardines and anchovies on the South African and Namibian coastlines. However, due to environmental changes, their food supplies have been dwindling. This is heavily affecting young penguins, who use cues from the environment to find food rather than being taught by their parents. Whilst the fish stocks have been depleted from overfishing, the cues for the penguins to feed in those areas remain. In these nutrient rich areas of ocean, phytoplankton feed on zooplankton, yet there are no fish to feed on these microscopic animals. The penguins still get the environmental cue that the habitat will support fish and thus fall into what is named, an ‘ecological trap’.
Most notably, the study concluded that if the fish stocks were sufficient, the African penguin population of the cost of South Africa could be double what it currently is (5,000 pairs instead of the current 2,500).
Conservation efforts have been aimed at hand-rearing penguin chicks after they have been abandoned by their parents to create new penguin colonies. These population would help to buffer against future changes. Unfortunately, these populations also fall into the ecological trap and try to fish in the depleted stocks. Therefore, more radical conservation approaches are needed such as setting fishing quotas or fishing suspensions in the areas that the penguins try to feed. However, there is significant opposition to fishing quotas. Furthermore, fishing quotas can fail if all social and economic factors are not considered. This can be overcome by using agent based modelling techniques that simulate actions and interaction of agents (i.e. a fishing boats, group of fishing boats or organisation) based on policies and economies representing their effects on the system as a whole.