World’s largest African penguin colony at risk

The African penguin colony on St Croix Island near Port Elizabeth is being put at risk by ship-to-ship fuel transfers happening at sea in the nearby deep-water harbour. 

According to The Conversation, the Coega Harbour in Algoa Bay has been allowing these transfers to take place for three years despite it being prohibited under the Marine Pollution (Control and Civil Liability) Act 6 of 1981. The bay is also a marine diversity hotspot and this penguin breeding island falls within the recently declared Addo Marine Protected Area

During these fuel transfers there’s always the risk of small leaks or tank overflows, and once oil has been spilt it is very difficult to contain. 

Two minor oil spills have already occurred in the area as a result of these transfers. The spills which took place in 2016, and again in July this year, affected 220 African Penguins of the estimated 15,000 in the colony. 

Oil spills have a severe impact on the penguins. Being covered in oil reduces the flightless birds’ insulation, increasing the likelihood of hypothermia. It also causes skin irritation and ulcers. Penguins may also accidentally ingest some of the toxic fuel while trying to preen themselves, which disrupts their endocrine systems. 

In the case of these two spills, important nests containing eggs and chicks were also abandoned.  

While cleaning efforts are conducted by the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) to try and save as many penguins as possible, research has shown that oiled African penguins that are cleaned still have lower breeding success than unexposed birds.

Environmental stakeholders have repeatedly raised concerns and asked for the transfers to be halted pending a cost-benefit assessment of the practice, but have yet to receive a response.

Image source: Pixabay

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