New research offers glimmer of hope to WA’s threatened little penguin population

A growing population of little penguins near Western Australia’s southernmost point is offering a beacon of hope for the species.

Experts have recorded up to 140 little penguin breeding pairs on an island off WA’s south coast.

Research fellow at the University of WA Belinda Cannell says a recent survey of the penguins on Albany’s Mistaken Island is the first time the birds have been counted since an unofficial tally 30 years ago.

“That’s slightly more than what was estimated back in 1992,” she said.

“But again, that wasn’t a proper survey, so we really don’t know whether the numbers are increasing or decreasing.”

Dr Cannell says little is still known about the colony residing off the south coast and more research would help to better understand their breeding and foraging patterns.

“We don’t know where they go,” she said.

Penguins under threat
A recent report showed that the colony on Penguin Island, just 600 metres of the Rockingham coast, has declined by 80 per cent from about 1,600 in 2007, to 300 in 2019.

Dr Cannell says there are a multitude of things that threaten the little penguin population in WA.

Climate change, boat strikes and disease are the ones which cause the greatest concern.

Dr Cannell says rising temperatures are worrying for penguin populations because they can die from overheating.

“Penguins get heat stressed at 33 degrees Celsius or above,” she said.

She said that might be good news for the penguins in the south.

“It’s important for penguins to remain cold, particularly over the summer months.”

“Albany tends to be cooler during the summer months.

“That’s really good for penguins stuck on land,” she said.

Dr Cannell says climate change is not the only thing that affects penguin population.

She said watercraft strikes make up about 25 per cent of the mortality rate of the local penguins at Penguin Island.

But because little is still known about where the birds travel to feed, Dr Cannell says it is difficult to understand the threat boat strikes have on the south coast penguin colony.

Dr Cannell thinks more needs to be done to protect the species living in the Southern Ocean.

“We just got to try to limit those impacts for penguins down in Albany,” she said,

“They may become the edge of the range for little penguins in Western Australia in years to come.”