Thousands of Adelie penguin chicks died in Antarctica early this year, in an event now prompting conservationists to call for the urgent protection of east Antarctic waters. Scientists studying a colony of more than 18,000 pairs of Adelie penguins in the French Antarctic territory, Adelie Land, discovered only two chicks had survived at the start of 2017. The rest of the chicks had starved.
The chicks are undernourished, so they are really weak, and they can be starving to death if the parents don't come back with food for them, penguin scientist Yan Ropert-Coudert said.
He said unusually extensive sea ice late in the summer caused problems. The birds have to travel much further in difficult conditions to find food for the chicks, Dr Ropert-Coudert said.
Dr Ropert-Coudert leads the Adelie penguin program at Dumont D'Urville research station, adjacent to the colony. He said it was the second time the colony had suffered the loss of thousands of chicks following a catastrophic breeding event four years ago.
The original culprit was when the Mertz glacier was hit by the B9B iceberg in 2010, which has profoundly changed the area in front of Dumont D'Urville. But it's not every year, that's the important message, he said.
There are years where all the conditions are set for this to happen, and there are years when it still will be okay.
The discovery of the penguin chick deaths has prompted renewed calls for more marine protected areas in Antarctic waters.
Last year, at the meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, all member countries agreed to establish a marine protected area (MPA) in Antarctica's Ross Sea.
Ahead of the 2017 meeting next week, conservation organization the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is calling for east Antarctic waters to be protected.
The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adelie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable, WWF's Rod Downie said.
”So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new marine protected area (MPA) for the waters off east Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins.”
A proposal for an MPA in east Antarctica, led by Australia and France, has been considered at the annual CCAMLR meeting for the past eight years, with no agreement reached so far.