Antarctic penguin colonies decline by as much as 77 percent in last 50 years


February 10, 2020

Ushuaia, Argentina, February 10, 2020 Scientists surveying chinstrap penguin colonies in the Antarctic have found drastic reductions in many colonies, with some declining by as much as 77 percent since they were last surveyed almost 50 years ago. 

The independent researchers, on a Greenpeace expedition to the region, found that every single colony surveyed on Elephant Island, an important habitat northeast of the Antarctic Peninsula, had declined. The number of chinstrap penguins on Elephant Island has dropped almost 60 percent since the last survey in 1971, with a total count of only 52,786 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins, plummeting from previous survey estimates of around 122,550 pairs.

Dr Heather J. Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University, one of the expedition’s leads, said: “Such significant declines suggest that the Southern Ocean’s ecosystem is fundamentally changed from 50 years ago, and that the impacts of this are rippling up the food web to species like chinstrap penguins. While several factors may have a role to play, all the evidence we have points to climate change as being responsible for the changes we are seeing.”

The team of scientists, from Stony Brook and Northeastern University, has also been surveying a series of large but relatively unknown chinstrap penguin colonies on Low Island, using manual and drone surveying techniques. This will be the first time the island, thought to have around 100,000 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins, has been properly surveyed from land, with results to follow.

In tandem, campaigners have been installing ‘disappearing’ penguin ice sculptures in capitals around the world this week, from Washington D.C. to London, Buenos Aires to Cape Town to demand urgent action to protect ocean wildlife with a Global Ocean Treaty. [See images here].

Arlo Hemphill of Greenpeace’s Protect the Oceans campaign, said: “We installed a melting penguin sculpture in front of the U.S. Capitol to highlight the threats ocean wildlife is currently facing. Without protection, not only penguins are at stake but entire ecosystems are in danger from the impacts of industrial fishing, pollution, deep sea mining and climate change. We’re calling on the U.S. government to support the creation of a strong Global Ocean Treaty at the United Nations to protect 30 percent of our oceans by 2030. This new treaty would create a network of sanctuaries in international waters for wildlife to recover and thrive.” 


Photo and video can be accessed here. Interviews with scientists and campaigners are available upon request.

Disappearing penguin ice sculptures appeared in 15 capitals around the world, including: Washington D.C., Buenos Aires, Cape Town, London, Seoul and Tel Aviv. Images are available here.


[1] Greenpeace’s ships the Esperanza and Arctic Sunrise are in the Antarctic for the conclusion of Greenpeace’s Pole to Pole expedition. See here for a map of the ‘Pole to Pole’ route.

[2] The expedition is documenting threats to the world’s oceans as part of Greenpeace’s campaign for a Global Ocean Treaty, which could lay the groundwork for a network of ocean sanctuaries covering 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030.

[3] Greenpeace has been campaigning for the establishment of three Antarctic sanctuary proposals, which after being rejected in 2019, are due to be discussed again at this year’s Antarctic Ocean Commission (CCAMLR) meeting in October. These sanctuaries would offer protection for many of the colonies being surveyed.

[4] Dr Heather J. Lynch is IACS Endowed Chair of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University.

[5] Arlo Hemphill is a senior ocean campaigner at Greenpeace USA.


Crystal Mojica – Senior Communications Specialist, Greenpeace USA – [email protected], +1 646- 530-1581


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