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Anchovy fishing could harm Patagonian penguins

In the movie Happy Feet, Mumbles the emperor penguin discovers that overfishing by humans is causing a famine in the penguin colony in Antarctica. If we're not careful, a similar type of situation (minus the tap-dancing) could take place on the Patagonian coast of Argentina, researchers say.

Patagonia is the southern-most portion of South America. The western portion is in Chile, and the eastern portion is in Argentina. The waters off the Patagonian coasts are home to lots of anchovies, the little fish that some people like to eat on their pizza.

A wide variety of animals lives in Patagonia, but the coast is especially famous for its marine animals, such as Magellanic penguins, which are much smaller than their emperor cousins on Antarctica. Many of these animals depend on anchovies.

In a Policy Forum article in the 5 January 2007 issue of the journal Science, Elizabeth Skewgar of the University of Washington and her colleagues report that a newly approved plan to open the Patagonian coast to anchovy fishing could have serious effects on the penguins, right whales, elephant seals and other animals that live there.

In 2003, the Argentinian government approved a plan to start up a small-scale fishery for anchovy, partly because another fish that lives in these waters, called hake, has already been overfished.

The proposed area where the fishing would take place is near the world's largest continental Magellanic penguin colony.

Unfortunately, the plan does not include specific ways to study the fishery's effect on the fish and wildlife species that depend on anchovy.

In their article, Skewgar and her colleagues argue that researchers need to determine the effects on other fisheries, risks to wildlife and ecotourism, and food-web interactions before this plan goes any further.