Plight of the Penguins: Climate Change Impact

with Andrea Kavanagh of The Pew Charitable Trusts

The rapid warming of Antarctica, driven by climate change, is threatening the future of some species including the continent’s chinstrap penguins.

Andrea Kavanagh, Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Conservation program at The Pew Charitable Trusts, joins host Tetiana Anderson to discuss her organization's work on protecting vulnerable species and their ecosystems.

Posted on:

Apr 01, 2021

Hosted by: Tetiana Anderson
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Anderson: On February 6th of 2020, Antarctica, which is normally bitter cold, recorded a record-high temperature of 64.9 degrees Fahrenheit. That was about the same temperature recorded in Los Angeles on that very same day. The result -- worldwide glacial melting that had a really profound impact on the climate, sea level and natural habitat of a number of different species. Hello and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Tetiana Anderson. New research shows that the effects of climate change on wildlife, like Antarctica's chinstrap penguins, is profound. Their population has dropped by more than 50%. Joining me to talk about all of this is Andrea Kavanagh. She directs the Antarctic and Southern Ocean conservation efforts at the Pew Charitable Trusts. And, Andrea, thank you so much for being here.

Kavanagh: Thank you for having me, Tetiana. I'm really happy to come and talk about penguins.

Anderson: There's a lot to talk about. And you work on a lot of issues. You've worked a lot on some of my favorite fish, salmon, Chilean sea bass. You've been very focused on krill. And in all seriousness, your job is to really get people like me to understand the connection between consumption and what can happen later that can lead to endangerment or even worse. So in that context, what's going on between krill and penguins?

Kavanagh: So krill are the base of the entire Southern Ocean ecosystem. Without krill, there would be not a single animal in the ocean there, probably. And penguins depend on krill for food, just like many of the other species. And there are lots of penguin species, like emperor penguins, gentoo penguins, chinstrap penguins and Adélie penguins. And in some way or other, they all depend on krill to eat. But the chinstrap penguins, in particular, are really limited in what they can eat. And so, if they don't have enough krill, then their numbers drop.

Anderson: So we know that the Southern Ocean is really sort of one of the least altered marine ecosystems on Earth. It makes up about 10% of the world's oceans. What's worse when it comes to climate change causing great effect there, overfishing? I mean, is one worse than the other?

Kavanagh: That's an excellent question. And science is still working to try to figure out what's worse. For a long time, everyone assumed it was climate change was having the worst effect, although there are new studies that just recently came out that showed that in some areas around the Antarctic Peninsula in particular, it's actually overfishing that's having more of an impact on the penguin species that live there. What happens with krill is that the place where the vessels go fishing are right next to the penguin colonies and they're able to come in and really vacuum up a lot of the food that the penguins that live there -- and usually when they're nesting and breeding -- are really dependent on being able to get in and out quickly to get food. So if you have a vessel there scooping up all the krill, then it really affects those nesting and breeding penguins a lot.

Anderson: So what's happening in the Southern Ocean isn't just important to penguins, though. I mean, all of this has a knock-on effect. Explain that for our viewers and why this is important to us as humans who don't live in Antarctica.

Kavanagh: Yeah, so the Southern Ocean has actually been described as the air conditioner for the planet. You get currents that flow out of Antarctica all the way around the globe. And so they bring cooling waters up through different currents all the way up into even next to the United States. And in addition to those cooling currents, they also bring nutrients that feed more than three-quarters of the world's fisheries. So having a thriving ecosystem in the Southern Ocean is important not just to those animals that live there but to humans all around the globe and to the different types of fish that humans depend on.

Anderson: So Pew is heavily involved in creating these things called marine protected areas that would guard against endangerment, that would stop depletion. Explain exactly what those are and how they would work.

Kavanagh: Sure. So a marine protected area -- the easiest way to think about it is that it's a park, a marine park, just like Yellowstone National Park is there and protected. These are the same things, except they're on the water. So there's no industrial activity that can take place in these areas, no fishing or anything like that. And a lot of research has shown that if you protect a certain area in the ocean, there's actually a spillover effect outside that park boundary. There are bigger fish, more plentiful fish. So in the end, fishermen can actually benefit by having NPAs close to their fishing grounds because it makes the entire ecosystem healthier. And that's the whole point of these marine protected areas, is to make sure that we're protecting the ecosystem and keeping it as resilient as possible, because we know that as the climate warms, there will be more and more effects that we just can't even anticipate happening. So if you keep other problems from occurring, other stresses from being on the penguins or other fish, then you can give it the best chance of being able to evolve and survive into the future.

Anderson: It's absolutely amazing. And I know people are going to want to know more. So, Andrea, where can they go? Is there a website?

Kavanagh: Sure. I would encourage you to come to the Pew Charitable Trusts website. You can look for my campaign -- protecting Antarctica's Southern Ocean. We have lots of great videos and fact sheets and all kinds of information that any -- Probably more information than anyone would want to read.

Anderson: Andrea Kavanagh, thank you so much for being here.

Kavanagh: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.

Anderson: And thanks to our viewers as well for watching. For more great conversations with leaders in your own community and across the nation, be sure to visit I'm Tetiana Anderson.

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