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14 February 2024updated 20 Feb 2024 11:29am

Antarctica’s penguins may yet be safe from bird flu, but other threats remain

If the birds are lost, it will be due to commercial over-fishing and our failure to take simple steps to protect them.

By John Burnside

To anyone whose head is not terminally buried in the sand, the decline of birdlife worldwide over the past 50 years is common knowledge. According to a study published in Science in 2019, the United States had by then lost more than a quarter of its birds compared with 1970, while a 2023 report by the British Trust for Ornithology estimates that the UK lost 73 million birds in a similar period. Worldwide, the picture is similar, or worse, with the main causes of decline identified as habitat loss, toxic farming practices and an ever-increasing exposure to disease.

Of course, these factors are intricately linked: an organism becomes more than usually vulnerable when its food sources dwindle and its exposure to environmental toxins increases. It comes as no surprise, then, to hear that Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or bird flu, has struck gentoo penguin populations in sub-Antarctica. Nor is it, in any real sense, news.

Bird flu has been in Antarctica for some time, affecting not only birds, such as skuas, kelp gulls and terns, but also mammals, including fur and elephant seals. Among the penguins, it appears that, so far, only gentoos have been affected (an initial report that a king penguin had also succumbed to the virus has since been dismissed). This means there is a chance, for now, that this outbreak might not reach the Antarctic mainland and infect other penguin species.

However, it is hard to be optimistic when we consider how ubiquitous bird flu has become since the H5N1 virus was first identified in 1996 – and even if the disease does not cross to the mainland, it does not mean that the penguins there are safe. According to Birdlife International, half of all penguin species are at risk, mainly because “human impacts are hitting their homes too hard and too fast for them to cope. The threats are numerous, including habitat loss, pollution, disease, and reduced food availability due to commercial fishing… [while] the sea ice that they depend on to find food or build nests is melting before their eyes.”

The deleterious impact of commercial fishing on penguin (and whale) populations in Antarctica is now well known. Yet, while some efforts have been made to control that impact, they have not gone far enough. Among penguins, it is the gentoo and chinstraps who suffer most in the western sub-Antarctic region, as the krill they depend upon for survival are depleted both by climate change and insufficiently regulated fishing practices.

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This is frustrating for ecologists, as some fairly simple measures would make all the difference in alleviating the problem. As Lucas Krüger, one of the authors of a significant 2020 study on krill fishing and penguin numbers told journalists: “Marine Protection Areas [MPAs] that prevent fishing at levels that pose a risk to penguins would likely help even in the short term… those effects would be beneficial not only for the krill, penguins, and other krill predators but for the fishery itself. There are several published studies showing that no-take or partially no-take MPAs allow stocks to recover from exploitation… particularly in ecosystems threatened by both fishing and climate change.”

Some protected areas do exist, but researchers believe they are not extensive enough to save the penguins. However, international attempts to follow the ecologists’ advice on whale and penguin conservation in the waters around Antarctica have been significantly hampered by politics, with some countries doing their utmost to limit protective measures. It is hard not to wonder what they are thinking: nothing is more final than an extinction and when a species does vanish from the Earth, it is gone forever, no matter how it died out. If, in the end, the gentoos are chalked down as having been lost entirely to bird flu, any future historian with their head above the sand will have to admit that this conclusion is a lie.

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland