Interview with Dee Boersma: Science catalyzing environmental protection of penguins

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Editors Note: The following is from Issue 20.
By Jimmy Langman
She has been called the “Jane Goodall of penguins” by The New York Times. Just like Goodall, whose long-term studies of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania began in 1960, Dee Boersma has been studying the giant colony of Magallanic penguins at Punta Tombo, Argentina, every year since 1982. That makes it one of the longest continuous studies of penguins in the world, and it is not just helping man to understand better the way penguins live, the penguins are true sentinel species revealing much about how mankind is damaging our planetary habitat through climate change, overfishing, oil spills, plastics pollution, unsustainable tourism and more.
At Punta Tombo, Boersma’s early research there helped the Wildlife Conservation Society forestall plans by a Japanese company that wanted to kill 40,000 penguins a year to make high fashion golf gloves. Later, her studies showing that thousands of penguins were regularly being oiled to death because of oil drilling and shipping helped convince Argentina in 1994 to forbid oil tankers to move within 100 km (62 miles) of the shoreline in the province of Chubut. In 2015, her data helped spark a UNESCO biosphere reserve known as "Blue Patagonia” that includes Punta Tombo and surrounding areas covering altogether 3.1 million hectares (7.7 million acres).
Boersma, 72, has a shelf full of awards to show for her long body of work, and not just at Punta Tombo. She conducted penguin studies for five years in the Falkland Islands. Her dissertation work for a PhD in zoology from Ohio State University focused on the endangered Galapagos penguins off the coast of Ecuador, the beginnings of nearly five decades studying that species.
Her field work in South America throughout her career has been based out of the University of Washington, where she is a conservation science professor, the director of the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, and founder and former longtime editor of Conservation magazine (which in 2015 became Anthropocene magazine). Additionally, Boersma continues to collaborate closely with environmental NGOs such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and is co-founder of the Global Penguin Society, an international coalition of penguin researchers and conservationists.
“What I’m most interested in is long-term studies of penguins, particularly natural history in conservation,” she says. “Because without natural history, you can’t make good policy. You can’t understand what you need to do to protect these animals.” Patagon Journal executive editor Jimmy Langman interviewed Boersma via Skype in May. Excerpts:
LANGMAN: Your work in researching penguins at Punta Tombo has been very successful.
BOERSMA: When I got involved in this, I wanted to do a long-term study. I thought that would be three years, and now we’re starting year 36. I never expected to be doing it this long, but it’s really interesting to me and we’ve banded more than 60,000 penguins over the years. 44,000 of them were banded as chicks. We’ve seen, out of those chicks, close to 3,200 have come back to colonies. It’s just an incredible data set, so it’s hard for me to give it up.
How has your thinking about penguins changed? I imagine when you first started out you had a certain set of ideas.
Well, one is I thought that penguins would probably breed when they were 2 or 3 years old. It turns out that a few females breed at 4, most of the females don’t start breeding until they’re 5 or 6 years old, and the males not until they’re 6 or 7. And some I think don’t start breeding until they’re 12 or older, based on their behavior. So that surprised me, and I decided I had to do this for longer than three years because I wasn’t even staying long enough for them to start breeding. So that’s what really started me on this quest.
Is it true that the colony at Punta Tombo has declined by 40 percent?
That’s right. I put out permanent stakes in 1987. We have a stake in the ground, so I can go exactly back to the same place and count the number of active nests. It’s a little less than 200,000 breeding pairs. They’re spread out over a larger area. So now it’s no longer the biggest colony because there are more at San Lorenzo, and many of their birds are from Punta Tombo. The colony at San Lorenzo was very small in 1983 when I first went to visit. Maybe 1,000 birds. Today, it’s more than 200,000. San Lorenzo is just closer to where the food is. Penguins have voted with their feet.
Is that the main threat to the survival of penguins, whether they have enough food?
Forty percent of our chicks die from starvation. The real threat to the colony, I think, is in their wintering grounds off of northern Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. There’s no marine protected area there. Any year you look at, female survival is lower than male survival. Our sex ratio at Punta Tombo has gotten skewed over the last 30 years. Now, there are many more males than there are females. For every female, there’s more than two males so a lot of males don’t even get mated.
Is that because the female penguins are smaller?
Well, the females are smaller than the males. But I don’t know why the females are more likely to die on the wintering grounds. Is it just because males are bigger, so they can fast for longer? Is it because they have a slightly more favorable surface-to-volume ratio because they are bigger, so they can retain the heat slightly better? I don’t have any idea. You’d think in these 35 years of data, one year the females should’ve done better than the males, but they always do more poorly.
How is climate change affecting penguins?
Climate change is a real hard one. Certainly, changes in ocean productivity affect penguins, and warming seas appear to be less productive than colder seas. For Galapagos penguins, the increase in the frequency of El Niño is a real problem for them. For Magallanic penguins, it really seems to be the rains. Heck, one rainstorm can kill 50 percent of the chicks.
Have you seen a tendency for more intense rainstorms in recent years?
Oh, yeah. That trend is continuing. We published our recent paper on this with 28 years of data. Some years, you get no penguins that have died. This year, we got one day — just one day — where it was 44 degrees Celsius in the shade, and we found more than 150 dead penguins. So that’s a real problem.
The Magallanes penguin colony at Punta Tombo, Argentina, has 200,000 breeding pairs. Photo: Guillermo Harris/WCS ArgentinaThe Magallanes penguin colony at Punta Tombo, Argentina, has 200,000 breeding pairs. Photo: Guillermo Harris/WCS Argentina
Climate change also affects the amount of food they can feed on.
Yeah. You know, currents can change. But you’ve also got fishing mixed in here. It’s difficult to sort out how much is climate change related, and how much is mismanagement of fisheries or overfishing. Or how much is oil pollution. We pretty much solved the oil pollution problem along the coast of Chubut. Once those tanker lanes got moved further offshore, we’re not seeing oiled penguins like we did 35 years ago. So that’s really good news.
Is overfishing the main reason for a decline in penguin populations in the Falkland Islands?
I think it depends on the species. I don’t think there’s been any decline in gentoo penguins. There’s been a big decline in rockhopper penguins, and that could be because of overfishing. But rockhopper penguins use the entire South Atlantic basin. I put tags on some of the rockhopper penguins, and some of them went all the way over to the coast of Argentina. They move quite a bit. Magallanic have not declined much. But in general, I couldn’t say how much of the population changes are due to fishing, how much is due to climate change, or anything else. I don’t think the data is very good for rockhoppers or Magallanic.
The Magallanic penguins that migrate to the Falklands to breed, where are they coming from?
The penguins from Punta Tombo meet up with the penguins from the Falklands, and all of them spend the winter together in northern Argentina and southern Brazil. So, if an oil spill or something were to happen there, you could really do great damage to the entire Atlantic population of Magallanic penguins. Fortunately, not all the Magallanic penguins migrate together, the Chilean side is separate from the Argentine side.
What’s needed to protect those wintering grounds?
We need a marine protected area there. We need to protect the large areas, so the penguins can forage there and not have to worry about competing with anchovy or sardine fisheries or getting caught in the set nets that they use along the coast of Brazil. It’s really important that we protect the wintering grounds because that’s the tough time for Magallanic penguins. That’s when they starve to death.
Are there any efforts toward that at the moment?
Not that I know of. Governments are going to have to come together to partly lead on that. Of course, this is not a very good time with the new president of Brazil. He just doesn’t seem to be very interested in conservation. I also have not seen much interest in Uruguay. And there will be private fishing interests in all of this that would not want to have a protected area for penguins in the winter.
Are more marine protected areas enough on their own?
We also need zoning. We don’t need a marine protected area along the entire Argentina coast for the entire wintering period. But it would be good to have some zoning during the migration period so that there aren’t a lot of oil tankers around the penguins. And you don’t want fishing in the breeding ground for the anchovies. That’s the nice thing about Punta Tombo. They actually have a protected area for anchovy spawning. They don’t exactly manage it the way I’d like to see it – as you can fish in some squares and you can’t fish in others – but at least there’s some protection for spawning.

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