The Human Aspect
For the most part, humans don’t directly affect the penguin population at Punta Tombo, simply because the penguins live in a reserve about 100 km from the nearest city. Tourists can walk around on marked trails among the penguins. Our studies show that the penguins in the area regularly visited are ‘tamer’ allowing people to approach closely without exhibiting fear or modifying their behavior. Reproductive success of penguins in the tourist trail appears similar to other areas of the colony without tourists. Because of the careful control of tourists, penguins and tourism seem to be compatible providing people an opportunity to learn about penguins and to help with their conservation. However, people are a threat to penguins through their degradation of the oceans.
The penguins living in the colony at Punta Tombo face threats related to the poor health of the ocean. Fishing boats are a big threat because penguins get caught nets. We know little about how much competition for food there is between fishing boats and penguins, however, as humans continue to ‘vacuum’ the ocean and fish down the food chain competition can only become more significant. In 2001 about 30 shrimp boats were spotted offshore at Punta Tombo four nights in a row. The morning they left the beach was littered with plastic, propane tanks, and cardboard. Researchers collected an entire truckload of garbage off the 100 meters of coast where tourists visit.
Along with fishing, oil is also a threat to the penguins at Punta Tombo. In the early 1980s we estimated about 42,000 penguins died each year because of the dumping of ballast water contaminated with petroleum. Tankers fill their oil tanks with water when they are empty to help stabilize the ship at sea and empty the oily water into the ocean before arriving at port to take on petroleum. If a penguin swims into petroleum floating on the ocean, the oil destroys the insulating properties of the penguin’s feathers. The oil may also be ingested when a penguin preens its feathers and can cause lesions in the stomach and depress the immune system. Even a small spot of oil can decrease the ability to thermoregulate and digest food. Penguins that get oiled often head to shore because they are warmer on land. They eventually starve to death because there is no food for them on land. Over the last decade, the number of oiled birds on the beaches of Punta Tombo has dropped because of a reduction in illegal dumping of ballast waste-water and changes in tanker lanes. Efforts to improve the health of our oceans must continue. Humans as well as penguins need a healthy ocean for a healthy life.
Climate change, in the form of more frequent and larger rainstorms, is increasing chick deaths and decreasing the number of chicks fledging in rainy years. See Current and Future Research.