Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Penguin Oiling, Then and Now

Spheniscus magellanicus is not the South Atlantic's most abundant penguin species, but it is easily the most visible, thanks to the accessible breeding colonies along Argentina's Patagonian coastline. Commonly known as the Magellanic penguin (but also as the jackass for its braying call), it spends the southern summer at sites such as Península Valdés, Punta Tombo (pictured here), and Cabo Vírgenes. There are also large accessible colonies in southern Chile at Isla Magdalena and Otway Sound, and on the Falkland Islands. Yet the Magellanic is, according to the IUCN, a threatened species.

Since private cars and buses (on the mainland) and boats (in the case of Isla Magdalena and the Falklands) bring so many tourists to these breeding sites, it's tempting to agree with Dan Neil, who wrote in last Sunday's Los Angeles Times that conscientious travelers should avoid such destinations to protect the resource. Yet the consensus is that the major threat to Magellanic populations is chronic oil pollution, another instance of which occurred due to a collision between Greek and Maltese freighters off the Uruguayan coast over the weekend. Numerous penguins, which spend the winter at sea, washed up dead on nearby beaches.

Despite Neil's contentions, it's hard to argue that well-regulated visits to Magellanic penguin colonies have any sort of negative effect on the birds - in fact, studies at Punta Tombo have indicated that reproductive success is comparable among birds exposed to human visits and those in more isolated areas. In all likelihood, visitors to Punta Tombo and elsewhere are likelier to appreciate the conservation issues involved - penguin-watching is a learning experience.

In another instance, Neil is even farther off-base when he mentions Chile's Río Futaleufú (pictured below), a world-class whitewater river threatened by hydroelectric development - can he seriously think that, if rafters and kayakers refrain from descending the Fu, that no dams would be built?

An explanation of this post's title: in the 19th century, South Atlantic penguins were often killed and boiled for oil, to be exported to Europe. While the birds did not suffer the depredations that whales and seals did, it's ironic that today they're being sacrificed in a different sort of "oiling" - which never could have happened in the days of sail.

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