Rapid decline of Penguin Island population

Holly ThompsonSound Telegraph
Penguins are disappearing on Penguin Island.
Camera IconPenguins are disappearing on Penguin Island. Credit: Sarah Coote/Supplied./Sarah Coote/Supplied.

A new study has revealed the Little Penguin population on Penguin Island has declined at a rapid rate over recent years, with the overall population down 80 per cent since 2007.

The significant decline in numbers was discovered in the latest population estimate study at Murdoch University.

Just as worrying, the rate of decline is escalating. In 2017 it was half the size of the population in 2007 and the population in 2019 was half the size of the population in 2017.

It is believed the decline is due to Penguin Island visitor rates and public access to habitat areas, watercraft injury, overheating and a marine heatwave and its effect on food sources.

Rockingham Wild Encounters general manager Chad D’Souza said he was “very frustrated”, having campaigned to get a discovery centre built on the mainland since 2016.

“If the penguin feeding and key interactions with tourists happened here we could use the island as a rehabilitation centre for the Little Penguins,” he said.

“Everyone, including the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions and the City of Rockingham have agreed that this would be a good idea but nothing has been officially signed off yet.”

Mr D’Souza said they received a similar number of tourists as Busselton Jetty, but struggled to get close to the same funding.

Little Penguins on Penguin Island are disappearing.
Camera IconLittle Penguins on Penguin Island are disappearing. Credit: Sarah Coote

“This discovery centre would create jobs and would make seeing the penguins more accessible to everyone including local tourists,” he said.

“We have the staff and the facilities to run this,” he said. “We would still be taking people on boat tours and people could still visit the island, but the main interaction with penguins would be on the mainland which would really help stop the declining numbers.”

A department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions Parks and Wildlife Service spokesman said the research recording a breeding population of just 300 on the island, which sees up to 130,000 visitors each year.

“Warmer seawater temperatures have affected the availability of food sources such as whitebait and this is likely to be a major factor in the little penguin population declines,” he said.

“While the decline in little penguin population in 2010-11 is likely related to a marine heatwave event, several stressors are known to affect the Penguin Island colony and the primary cause of the decline through to 2019 remains unclear.”

Rockingham Mayor Barry Sammels said it was “imperative” a collaborative approach was formed.

“The City is also engaging with local boat owners to remind them to keep an eye out for penguins and to encourage responsible behaviour within the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park,” he said.

Environment Minister Stephen Dawson said the State Government would continue to work with the City.

“We are committed to providing a visitor experience on Penguin Island. In August 2016, DBCA engaged a consultant to look at sustainable management of Penguin Island to maximise ecotourism opportunities and experiences,” he said.

“The study identified land vested within the City as a preferred location if a mainland facility were to be considered. DBCA will continue to work closely with the City and key stakeholders in respect to any proposals pursued by the City.

“DBCA is continuing to support ongoing research, monitoring and citizen science projects to improve our understanding and ability to help manage the penguin population into the future.”

Penguin Island, Shoalwater Marine Park, Rockingham Western Australia
Camera IconPenguin Island, Shoalwater Marine Park, Rockingham Western Australia Credit: Picture: Ian Beattie

Warnbro Liberal Democrat candidate Mark Gooderham has called for the State Government to do a Little Penguin management plan, which would include relocating the visitor centre to the mainland.

“We support local tourism. We know it’s the lifeblood of our coastal economy across the South Metropolitan Region, but especially here in Warnbro,” he said.

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