As the world's spiraling population creates greater demand for resources, the southern Atlantic Ocean is becoming a more popular spot to consider for fishing and oil exploration. But University of Washington zoologists and a Falkland Islands researcher have found that such interest could prove detrimental to Falklands penguins, whose numbers already could be declining.
Since 1995, Dee Boersma, a UW zoology professor; David Stokes, now at Sonoma State University in California; and Ian Strange, who operates the New Island South Conservation Trust in the Falklands, have monitored behavior and movements of three penguin species - Gentoos, Rockhoppers and Magellanics.
The birds live on the New Island preserve at the far west edge of the Falklands, about 300 miles off the coast of Argentina. To track how far they range for food, the researchers attached transmitters to the penguins and found that, while Gentoos tended to stay within 20 miles of the preserve, Rockhoppers, the smallest of the three species, swam 180 miles or more.
England, which owns the Falklands, and Argentina fought a war over possession of the islands 20 years ago. But in recent years the British, Falklands and Argentine governments have forged closer ties, and have formed a Special Cooperation Area for oil and gas exploration. That zone lies about 70 miles southwest of New Island, well within the range of foraging Rockhoppers.
In addition, fleets from several nations are licensed to fish within Falklands territorial waters, which are adjacent to large areas of the south Atlantic that are not under the control of any nation.
For Boersma, a leading conservation biologist, and Strange, who founded the New Island South Conservation Trust, the situation is worrisome. That's because oil spills and being caught up in fishing nets are among the most serious perils penguins can face in the open ocean, and there is evidence that some of the Falklands penguin species already are suffering declining numbers, Boersma said.
"The penguins don't pay attention to national and international boundaries, so we have to figure out some way to better reduce conflicts between people and organisms in the open ocean," she said.
More than 60 breeding species of birds live in the Falklands, and three-quarters of them can be found on New Island, Strange said. Since 1971, he has operated the preserve on half of the 8-mile-long, half-mile-wide island. The property is now permanently protected as a charitable trust. A field station named for donor Geoffrey Hughes can accommodate researchers and students. Strange, a self-described naturalist, is a native of Lincolnshire, England, who moved to the Falklands more than 40 years ago. He wanted to establish the preserve to protect wildlife and build a research base.
"We're not going to stop oil exploration, I'm not that naïve," he said. "But we may be able to come up with some strategy or plan that will help industry do the right things."
Strange teamed up with Boersma and Stokes and underwrote the research in the hope of finding what kind of threats might await the penguins that call his island home. Additional funding for the research came from the Exxon-Mobil Educational Alliance, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the New Island South Conservation Trust and the Falkland Islands government. Their findings were published in the British journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, in a special May edition dealing with the southwest Atlantic marine environment.
The research started with just a few birds in 1995, using battery-operated transmitters - about 1 inch by 3 inches - attached with a special epoxy to the penguins' backs. The devices send signals to the Argo satellite, which tracks their movement. The transmitters remain in place until the batteries go dead, then are removed.
From 1998 through 2000, Boersma, Stokes and Strange tracked two Gentoo, 18 Magellanic and 26 Rockhopper penguins. They found that the Gentoos stayed the closest and Rockhoppers went the farthest. In addition, all of the Rockhoppers that took long trips at least passed through the Special Cooperation Area, and some spent several days foraging for fish in that zone, where future oil exploration is possible. That was a surprise to many people, Boersma said, and it emphasizes how much isn't yet known about many species.
"If we know more about other organisms and when they use particular areas and resources, then we can manage our own activities around that," she said.