Little Penguins on Penguin Island Face Extinction


A population of little penguins on Penguin Island, just off the coast of Perth, is now at a critical low, with only about 120 birds remaining. This dramatic decline, representing a two-thirds drop in just five years, is further threatened by proposed developments, including a container port in nearby foraging grounds.

Recent studies reveal a staggering 92% decline in the penguin population since 2007. The latest findings, commissioned by the Rockingham council and presented to the state government in April, have not yet been publicly released despite repeated requests.

Factors contributing to this decline include boat strikes, parasitic infections, and marine heatwaves, which have depleted the penguins’ primary food sources. Notably, a disastrous breeding season in 2021 saw half of the chicks perish, leaving behind an aging breeding population.

Dr. Belinda Cannell from the University of Western Australia, who authored the new report, emphasized the urgency of informed management to save this genetically important population. Despite the alarming data, comments from scientists, including Cannell, are pending the report’s official release.

Tourism, though economically significant, poses additional pressures on the penguins. Frequent boat traffic to the island, coupled with an outdated management plan, exacerbates the situation. Biologist Erin Clitheroe from Murdoch University describes it as “death by a thousand cuts,” highlighting tourism as a manageable yet impactful factor.

The WA environment minister, Reece Whitby, pointed to rising sea temperatures as the primary cause of the penguins’ decline. He noted several protective measures, such as seasonal closures and the installation of artificial nest boxes.

However, local advocates argue that more stringent actions are necessary, especially to mitigate marine traffic impacts. Compounding these challenges, plans to relocate Fremantle’s container port to Kwinana pose a new threat.

This project, extending into Cockburn Sound— a vital foraging area for the penguins—would involve extensive dredging, potentially devastating fish stocks and further stressing the penguin colonies.

While the federal government has allocated $33.5 million towards this $4 billion Westport project, including substantial funding for environmental studies, concerns remain. Dr. Cannell’s research indicates that dredging would likely harm both penguin colonies due to noise, food source disruption, and increased predation risks.

The project has prompted calls for rigorous environmental assessments. WA Greens MP Brad Pettitt emphasized the need for the government to heed scientific evidence regarding the project’s ecological impacts. He criticized the potential “industrialization of Cockburn Sound” and its detrimental effects on wildlife, including the little penguins.

This article by Trinity Sparke was first published by One Green Planet on 21 May 2024. Lead Image: Little penguin (Eudyptula minor) is a species of penguin from New Zealand. They are commonly known as little blue penguins or blue penguins owing to their slate-blue plumage. Photo by Alamin-Khan / Shutterstock.

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