Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 25, 2022


Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 385-5746,
Suzanne Pelisson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, (973) 801-6223,

Emperor Penguins Win U.S. Endangered Species Act Protection

Melting Sea Ice Pushing Animals Toward Extinction, Urgent Climate Action Needed

WASHINGTON— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today granted the emperor penguin protection under the Endangered Species Act because of threats from sea-ice loss driven by the climate crisis. The decision follows a petition and lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity.

“This is a big win for these beloved, iconic penguins and all of us who want them to thrive,” said Shaye Wolf, Ph.D., the Center’s climate science director. “At the same time, this decision is a warning that emperor penguins need urgent climate action if they’re going to survive. The penguin’s very existence depends on whether our government takes strong action now to cut climate-heating fossil fuels and prevent irreversible damage to life on Earth.”

Scientists have extensively documented harms to emperor penguins from climate change and called for increased protections. A 2021 study concluded that without stronger climate action nearly all emperor penguin colonies would be pushed to the brink of extinction by 2100. The emperor penguin was also recently proposed for Specially Protected Species status under the Antarctic Treaty because of threats from the climate crisis.

“Listing emperor penguins as a threatened species is an important step for raising awareness about the impact of climate change,” said Stephanie Jenouvrier, Ph.D., a scientist and seabird ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Emperor penguins, like many species on Earth, face a very uncertain future, which is dependent on people working together to reduce carbon pollution. We should draw inspiration from the penguins themselves; only together can penguins brave the harshest climate on Earth, and only together can we face a difficult climate future.”

Emperor penguins need reliable sea ice for breeding and raising their chicks. As sea ice disappears or breaks up earlier in the year, entire emperor penguin colonies are declining or vanishing in parts of Antarctica.

In recent years colonies at Halley Bay and Cape Crozier suffered catastrophic breeding failures when sea ice broke up early before chicks were ready to swim, resulting in the drowning deaths of thousands of chicks. The emperor penguin colony population at Point Géologie, featured in the film March of the Penguins, has declined by nearly 50%.

Melting sea ice, ocean acidification and industrial fisheries have also diminished the availability of krill — a key food source for emperor penguins.

An Endangered Species Act listing promotes international cooperation on conservation strategies, increases funding for conservation programs, spurs research and provides concrete tools for threat reductions. Because of the penguin’s listing, the Act now requires U.S. federal agencies to reduce threats. That will include ensuring that industrial fisheries don’t deplete the penguin’s key prey species and evaluating harms from major greenhouse gas-emitting federal projects that speed the melting of Antarctic sea ice.

In 2011 the Center filed a legal petition urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list emperor penguins as endangered. In 2014 the agency agreed that the emperor penguin may be endangered from climate change but failed to move forward on protections. A February 2020 settlement agreement required the Service to either propose protections or deem listing not warranted by July 29, 2021. The Service proposed emperor penguins for protection on August 3, 2021, and today’s decision finalizes those protections.

RSEmperor_penguins_4_Daniel Zitterbart_WHOI_FPWC-scr
A group of emperor penguins and their chicks huddle on the ice in Antarctica. The emperor is the only penguin species to breed during the harsh Antarctic winter, on sea ice. Image by: Daniel Zitterbart © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Atka Bay, Antarctica Nov 2021 Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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