Rockingham community celebrates penguin colony conservation

The State Government has scrapped plans to build a $3.3 million discovery center on Penguin Island in Rockingham.

It came amid growing criticism from community members and scientists about the impact of construction and increased visitation of little penguins to the island’s population.

The island, the only small penguin colony in the Indian Ocean, has seen its population drop from about 1,600 in 2007 to about 300 in 2019.

WA Environment Minister Reece Whitby said the center would not continue on the island and the current building would be demolished and the site regenerated.

Erin Clitheroe, who completed her PhD on the effects of climate change on the habitat of little penguins on Earth, welcomed the move.

“I think it’s a really positive outcome for the little penguin colony on Penguin Island, which is having a bit of a problem at the moment, it’s declining rapidly,” he said.

“There are a number of factors contributing to this decline, the main ones being climate change and food availability.

“It’s really going to be up to the penguins to adapt to that, but we’ve got to remove those other pressures as much as we can.”

A wild little penguin rests under the Penguin Island walkway.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

Caps to beat the heat

The announcement also includes plans to help the baby penguins survive the hot days, with plans to close the island to visitors when temperatures are forecast to soar to 35C.

Penguins molt in summer, losing all their feathers and unable to swim or fish while new feathers grow in for two to three weeks.

“When they’re depleted, they’re really quite vulnerable to heat stress, they’re stuck on the island, they can’t go fishing or swimming,” Dr Clitheroe said.

“They really can’t handle temperatures above 35 degrees for more than a few hours.”

Swimmers and jetski in the water on the beach.
Penguins must paddle in the water to cool off, researchers say.

He said one of their natural behaviors would be to wade into the water to get a paddle.

“They don’t go swimming, but they can put their feet in the water,” he said.

“If there are people in their path or if they perceive visitors on the island as a threat, they may be prevented from engaging in this behavior, which can lead to hyperthermia.”

“Hope for the Colony”

He said climate change and its resulting effects on livestock conditions and food availability meant there was a long way to go to rebuild populations, but they had opportunities.

“They have a chance to adjust to that and it will make it a little bit easier for them by removing all the other pressures,” he said.

“We can’t just give up and think it’s too late. I really have hope for this colony.”

People walk along the boardwalk over the beach.
Penguin Island will be closed during the breeding season and on hot days.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

A win for society

Save Rockingham’s Little Penguins campaigner Dawn Jecks said the decision came after months of campaigning.

“The community wouldn’t allow it,” Ms Jacks said.

“As time went on, more and more information was released and the community was very, very engaged.

Dawn Jacks, organizer of Save Rockingham's Little Penguins
Dawn Jacks says the minister has agreed to everything the campaign has asked for.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

He said Mr Whitby had “finally got his head around it” and was given all the information he needed.

“And I’m so glad he listened and made a really smart decision,” she said.

Ms Jacks said the drastic population decline had spurred the community and local council into action with growing concern that the penguins could become extinct.

A woman holds a celebrating sign
A protester holds a sign calling for the protection of little penguins.(is given)

He said the penguins are an important symbol for the city.

“They’re on the kids’ school logos, they’re on the city crest, they’re on their signs,” he said.

“For us to stand by and let this happen, we just couldn’t do it.”

He said the campaign will continue to monitor the population and ensure that protection is ensured.

“We absolutely have to make sure they deliver on everything they’ve committed to,” he said.

“We really need to grow this population, and that will take years and years.”

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