GLAND, Switzerland— A study published this week finds that emperor penguins are being pushed towards extinction by the climate crisis melting the sea ice they need for survival. Yet the Trump administration has refused to give Endangered Species Act protections to the iconic birds.
The new peer-reviewed study by Philip Trathan and 17 other penguin researchers recommends that the emperor penguin be elevated to Vulnerable status on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. Published in Biological Conservation, the study points to the animals’ vulnerability to sea ice loss and projected population declines of more than 50 percent this century.
“This study shows that the climate crisis is already inflicting immense suffering and death on emperor penguins,” said Shaye Wolf, the Center for Biological Diversity’s climate science director. “If we want these iconic animals to survive, the world must heed this warning from penguin scientists. Yet the Trump administration won’t give these beautiful birds the Endangered Species Act protections they desperately need.”
The study highlights that urgent climate action is needed to protect the species: “Only a reduction in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will reduce threats to the emperor penguin from altered wind regimes, rising temperatures and melting sea ice.” The study also recommends additional conservation actions, including increased protection at breeding sites and foraging grounds.
As the new study highlights, emperor penguins need reliable sea ice for breeding and raising their chicks. In parts of Antarctica where sea ice is disappearing or breaking up early, their populations are declining or have been lost entirely.
A May 2019 study found that the emperor penguin colony at Halley Bay has suffered catastrophic breeding failure during the past three years due to record-low sea ice and early ice breakup. In 2016 more than 10,000 chicks are thought to have drowned when the sea ice broke up before they were ready to swim.
The emperor penguin colony featured in the film March of the Penguins has declined by more than 50 percent, and the Dion Island colony in the Antarctic Peninsula has disappeared.
A 2017 study projected that without large-scale cuts in carbon pollution, emperor penguins could experience a global population decline of 40 percent to 99 percent over three generations.
The Center for Biological Diversity has long fought for Endangered Species Act protection for the emperor penguin. In 2011 the Center petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the emperor penguin under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
In 2014 the agency agreed that the emperor penguin may be endangered by climate change, but failed to make the required 12-month finding on whether to propose protection. In July 2019, the Center sued the Trump administration for failing to act on the petition to protect emperor penguins under the Act.
An Endangered Species Act listing would compel the government to address threats to the iconic penguin, including the greenhouse gas pollution driving climate change and industrial overfishing of key prey species. And federal agencies would be required to ensure that their actions, including those generating large volumes of carbon pollution, do not jeopardize the penguin or its habitat.