P. Dee Boersma (KNFP 3), Wadsworth Endowed Chair in Conservation Science, Department of Biology, University of Washington
This article originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of the KFLA Newsletter.
In 1982, a Japanese company approached the Argentine government for permission to harvest up to 400,000 Patagonian penguins a year, mostly to produce fashionable gloves. A public outcry convinced the government to study what would happen if a harvest of the animals were approved. Dee Boersma, who was conducting penguin research and whose dissertation was on the Galapagos penguins, became the lead researcher for the resulting Wildlife Conservation study.
Dee’s work over the past 25 years at Punta Tombo on Argentina’s southern coast, site of the largest breeding colony of Patagonian penguins, has abolished any threat of harvesting penguins, but also uncovered an alarming decline in the colony’s penguin population over the years.
Dee has witnessed firsthand the devastating effects that climate change, large-scale fishing operations, spills from oil tankers, and even mobs of penguin-loving tourists have had on the penguins.
She asserts, ”They are sentinels that tell us about the world.”
Since 1983, Dee and teams of students and volunteers have regularly visited the colony at Punta Tombo to determine reproductive success, measure chick growth, track where the penguins forage, and conduct population surveys. While they saw population numbers decline overall, the largest decline in the colony was in 1991 following an oil spill. Dee and volunteers walked some 150 miles of coastline and estimated more than 20,000 penguins were killed. Based on their research findings, Dee and her team have taken action.
”We have been able to make recommendations based on scientific data, including the number of birds covered in petroleum, to the Province of Chubut that resulted in tanker lanes being moved 60 kilometers offshore,” says Dee. In addition, her work at Punta Tombo has led to changes in the opening and closing of commercial fishing operations. She also is encouraged that the Province has closed the road within the penguin colony to vehicles and is taking steps to manage tourism and minimize the effects on breeding penguins.
Says Dee, ”At the heart of the problem is the conflict between humans as stewards of the world’s resources and humans as insatiable consumers.” She explains, ”We have 6.7 billion people in the world and we are consuming at an incredible rate. We’re taking everything out of the sea and the land, and there’s not much left for other species. If we want to continue to live as we do in America, we will need four more Planet Earths.”
The answer, she maintains, is, ”People need to consume less and pay the real cost of our consumption and disposal. Our environmental problems are solvable; we just need to get the accounting right.”
Dee is hopeful that people can change, given social pressure and the right economic incentives. She points out, ”Wal-Mart’s decision to tell its suppliers they have to use recycled materials and less packaging in their products was a real plus.”
For Dee, the work at Punta Tombo is ongoing.
”The population of the Patagonian penguins since 1987 has declined 23 percent. At this rate, we’re not going to have Patagonian penguins in the future.
”The penguins are telling of rapid changes in the marine environment, that people are doing a poor job of managing oceans. The real question is: can we, and will we, manage ourselves?”