/ 4 August 2023

Fishing around penguin colonies to be limited for 10 years

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Forestry, Fisheries and Environment minister Barbara Creecy has announced that she will implement a decade-long fishing closure in the waters around six African penguin colonies to help protect the main prey — sardines and anchovies — of the endangered seabirds.

Creecy said she had taken the decision to implement the fishing limitations for the small pelagic fishery around Dassen Island, Robben Island, Stony Point, Dyer Island, St Croix  Island and Bird Island for a minimum of 10 years, with a review after six years of implementation and data collection.

Her announcement came after she received a report from an expert international review panel, which she appointed in December last year, on fishing closures and limitations around key penguin colonies in South Africa. 

Endemic to South Africa and Namibia, African penguins are teetering on the brink of extinction, with their population in South Africa plummeting from more than a million breeding pairs to just about 10 000 breeding pairs over the last century. 

“If this situation is not addressed, with current rates of population decline, science tells us these iconic creatures could be functionally extinct by 2035,” Creecy said. Competition for food is “thought to be one among a set of pressures” that are contributing to the decline of the population, she said.

Expert review panel

In 2008, what was then the department of environmental affairs implemented a groundbreaking decade-long island closure experiment (Ice), alternatively opening and closing four of the largest breeding colonies — Dassen, Robben, St Croix and Bird islands — to the pelagic fishing sector for a radius of 20km. This was to understand whether fishing affected the species. 

According to the panel’s report, Ice is complete, despite the challenges implementing it. Ice has been successful in demonstrating for the west colonies of Dassen and Robben islands — those more intensively studied — that “excluding fishing around island breeding colonies is likely to reduce the rate of decline in the population to a small extent, mediated through improvements in reproductive success”.

Excluding purse-seine (large-net) fishing around island breeding colonies is likely to have other positive benefits for penguin conservation, such as facilitating higher adult survival, but the Ice was not designed to estimate such effects, it noted. 

The five-person panel was chaired by Andre Punt, a professor in the school of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University Washington in the US and comprised a team of experts from Argentina, Australia, the UK and the US. 

Punt explained that the African penguin population has been rapidly declining by 8% a year since 2005. The results of the Ice for Dassen and Robben islands indicate that fishing closures around the breeding colonies are likely to have a positive impact on population growth rates, but “that the impacts may be small, in the range 0.71 to 1.51%, expressed in units of annual population growth rate”, he said. 

These impacts are small relative to the estimated relative reductions in penguin abundance for these two colonies over recent years, Punt said. Punt also said this is one part of a larger package of conservation measures and, as such, closures alone are unlikely to reverse the current declines.

Interim closures

Creecy said the transition to implementing fishing limitations would continue with the current interim closures (in September 2022 she declared some areas around the major penguin colonies closed to commercial fishing for anchovies and sardines) while the fishing industry and the conservation sector study the panel’s report.  

“Although not representative of a consensus agreement, these fishing restrictions were established after much collaboration and negotiation with the seabird conservation groups and the small pelagic fishing industry representatives,” she said. 

If there is agreement across these sectors on fishing limitations over the next few weeks or months, these will be implemented as they are agreed upon.

“If no alternate fishing limitation proposals are concluded by the start of the 2024 small pelagic fishing season — from 15 January 2024 — the current interim fishing limitations will continue until the end of the 2033 fishing season. There would be a review in 2030 after six years of implementation from the start of the 2024 fishing season.”

Meeting ‘needs of penguins and fishers’

The minister said the interim closures are an attempt to meet the needs of both penguins and fishers. 

“They don’t represent the full extent of the closures that the conservation sector would like nor do they represent the full extent of the non-closures that the fishing industry would like.”

She is faced with a “difficult situation” to balance the needs and the concerns of both sectors. “And, we have for two years, been having consultation between the sectors so that we can reach compromises that are acceptable to both sectors.” 

They had reached compromises with both sides but these couldn’t be disclosed until other stakeholders had been consulted. 

“… I’m trying to apply the precautionary principle that requires me to take action and … this action on its own is not going to prevent the decline though it may have some positive impact … At the same time, I’m required to consider socio-economic conditions and this is what my entire process for the last two years has aimed to do — to get the best deal that I can get under the current situation for people and for penguins.” 

There are obviously trade-offs, she said, adding that she hoped that the two sectors would come to an agreement before the end of the year.


The panel’s report found there is a trade-off between “maximising benefits to penguins, minimising the costs to the fishing industry and having a reliable basis to quantify the effects of closures (including no closures) on the penguin recovery rate”. 

The impact on the fishing industry can be evaluated using an “opportunity-based model” (OBM) that predicts the proportion of the catch of pelagic fish in closure areas that cannot be “replaced” by fishing outside these areas.

This is together with a Social Accounting Matrix (SAM) model that converts “lost catch” into economic impact (loss of GDP and jobs) on the fishery, suppliers of goods and services to the fishing industry, and the broader economy. 

These models can be used to rank closure options in terms of economic effects but the panel found that the OBM “likely overestimates the potential lost opportunities outside the closed area on a given day”. 

In its report, it said it remains concerned about the lack of information on how the closures impact fishing costs and fishing behaviour; the ability of the SAM model to adequately attribute impacts at the scale of fishing communities and that there are social impacts that are not estimated using the SAM but are important to consider in any trade-off analysis.

Evidence suggests that catches from within closure areas will be more difficult to replace around Dyer Island and St Croix Island than around the other five colonies with important breeding populations.

“Evidence also suggests that levels of lost catch can be reduced, if closures around penguin preferred habitats are well designed.”

On the report’s finding that the fishing sector is overestimating the extent of the loss, Creecy said: “We’re not cutting the total allowable catch, we’re not cutting the quotas, we are just saying there are certain areas close to the breeding colonies where we’re going to allow penguins to forage uninterrupted.”

No ‘miracle intervention’

Other pressures facing African penguins include ship traffic, with its associated noise, vibrations, pollution and degradation of suitable nesting habitats. Creecy said fishing limitations around breeding colonies only addresses one aspect of combating the high rate of penguin decline and “it is no miracle intervention”.

“It must be seen as contributing its share to the other interventions in the penguin management plan such as better managing land predators, habitat conservation and mitigating disease and pollution.

“It is acknowledged that small pelagic fishery limitations do have a benefit to penguins and that these benefits are small, relative to the observed decreases in the penguin populations over recent decades.

“It is our hope that this intervention will lend its support to the other parallel interventions to give the penguins a better chance.”