Speaker to address Humboldt Current ecosystem

By Shawn Clubb, Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis
February 6, 2007

Eating anchovies and nesting in guano -- could any Humboldt penguin ask for more?

It turns out this aquatic bird that nests on the western coast of South America could use something else. Its food supply and nesting source are both profitable items for Peruvian industry. The harvest of fish and bird droppings has a negative effect on survival of the species' Peruvian population.

Patricia Majluf, conservation fellow of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute, will speak on efforts to aid the species at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 13, at The Living World in the Saint Louis Zoo. Majluf, executive director of the Center for Environmental Sustainability at the Cayetano Heredia University in Lima, Peru, will discuss how her group is working with commercial fisheries, guano harvesters and the Peruvian government to change practices that are harmful to the penguins. Admission to the lecture is $5 for Zoo Friends members, $8 for the general public and $3 for students. Reservations should be made by calling (314) 768-5440.

Majluf said she will speak about Humboldt penguins, but also about the big picture of what is happening at Punta San Juan, home of the largest breeding colony of Humboldt penguins in Peru.

There are between 6,000 to 7,000 Humboldt penguins in the colony. It is much smaller than the population of Humboldt penguins in Chile, which is about 30,000. However, Majluf said breeding rates are low in Chile and effective breeding by penguins in Peru is important.

Majluf said the main impact on Punta San Juan is that the offshore fishery there is the largest anchovy fishery on the planet. The Humboldt Current causes waters to upwell from deeper in the Pacific Ocean toward the surface at the continental shelf, which is located close to shore at Punta San Juan. This has made the area fertile for anchovies -- the primary source of food for Humboldt penguins. Ten percent of the world harvest of anchovies is caught in this area.

Humboldt penguins have to swim farther in search of food when fishing boats take too many anchovies or when anchovies are driven into deeper waters by warm temperatures caused by El Nino.

"Penguins have to search all over the place for less nutritious food when the fish are harvested too much," Majluf said. "The fisheries are having a tremendous impact on the ecosystem."

Majluf said much of the anchovies harvested by fishermen are ground into fish meal to be fed to other fish at commercial fish farms. She said people end up eating less nutritious fish when they could get more out of eating the anchovies.

"We're trying to get people to eat the fish instead of using it for fish meal. That way you need less fish and get more money for it," she said.

Majluf is encouraging people to adopt anchovies as the next big thing in seafood. She said more people are starting to eat them and supermarkets are starting to sell them.

"They are seeing the light and using nutritious fish for a better purpose. It's going to take a few years. I think it's going to work out," Majluf said.

The Peruvian government is encouraging the effort.

Humboldt penguins nest in guano. The area where they live is hot and they use the material to insulate their eggs and hide them from birds that would prey on them, including band-tailed gulls.

However, companies harvest guano for use as fertilizer. Majluf said the penguins can use the material during breeding season and it can be harvested during the non-breeding season without harm to the colony.

"In past harvests, they removed all the guano from the nests. The penguins had nothing to burrow into," she said.

Majluf's group is now working with the guano harvesting companies. The companies are allowing the group to fence off areas where they want to prohibit harvesting of guano.

With enough food and nesting material, Humboldt penguin pairs can make as many as three breeding attempts per year and might raise as many as four chicks.

Majluf said the birds have been productive breeders over the last few years.

Michael Macek, curator of birds at the Saint Louis Zoo, said the efforts of the WildCare Institute have focused on securing Punta San Juan. The institute has raised funds to man the three-person staff on site. The staff helps maintain a wall that separates the penguin nesting area on the peninsula of Punta San Juan from the mainland. Without the wall, the penguins would be susceptible to predators including foxes, cats, dogs and humans.

"In the long-term, our objective is get Punta San Juan incorporated into a marine protected area system," Macek said.

The zoo has a captive population of 24 Humboldt penguins at Penguin and Puffin Coast. A quarter of those captive birds are recommended for breeding under the Species Survival Program through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Majluf said her group's efforts are focused on the entire Humboldt Current Ecosystem.

"It's a very complex picture you have to confront. There are a lot of things you can do at different levels," she said. "It will be an uphill battle, but we're getting information out to people."

Republished with permission of the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis
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