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Report reveals troubling decline of once-thriving penguin population: 'We will very likely lose this genetically important population'

The population of penguins on the island has decreased by two-thirds in the last five years.

The population of penguins on the island has decreased by two-thirds in the last five years.

Photo Credit: iStock

Western Australia's Penguin Island is close to losing its entire population of penguins, as the group's numbers have dropped to no more than 120 individuals, the Guardian reports.

What's happening?

Little penguins, also called fairy penguins, little blue penguins, or blue penguins, are found in New Zealand and Australia. In particular, they used to be a defining feature of a tourist island near Perth.

However, the Guardian reports that in the last five years, the population of penguins on the island has decreased by two-thirds. Since 2007, it has decreased 92%.

Why does the penguin population matter?

The penguins are pretty cute in and of themselves, but they're also an important way to measure the health of their island and the surrounding ocean. Some of the penguin deaths have been because of tourist boat strikes and parasites, the Guardian explains, but a large number have died off because of declining fish populations.

Fish are dying off in large numbers because of marine heat waves. That's not just a problem for penguins; it's also an issue for people. The immediate effects are felt by those whose livelihoods depend on fishing, while the rest of the world will see less fish in stores and higher fish prices overall.

Not to mention that this group of penguins holds a key part of the overall genetic diversity of the species. When a species loses that genetic diversity, it may not be able to maintain a healthy breeding population, and the species will die out that much more quickly.

As University of Western Australia biologist Belinda Cannell told the Guardian, "Without informed management, we will very likely lose this genetically important population of little penguins."

What's being done about declining penguin populations?

To protect little penguins in particular, conservationists have trained herding dogs — specifically, Maremmas — to protect flocks of penguins from invasive foxes. However, the Guardian also reports that a port is being built in the area, which is another threat to penguin conservation.

More broadly, the only way to protect marine ecosystems and the people who rely on them is to address the warming oceans and melting ice caps. Some companies are working on ways to boost polar ice production, but that's only a stopgap measure while we find a way to reduce heat-trapping air pollution and cool the Earth down for good.

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