On the rocky shores of Peru, Humboldt Penguins create underground burrows to protect themselves and their eggs from predators and the intense South American sun. The Humboldt Penguin, one of many penguin species living in tropical areas, feeds on the small fish—particularly anchovies and sardines—and squid that are swept along the Peruvian and Chilean coasts by the cold, northward flowing waters of the Humboldt Current.
Other marine birds and mammals rely on anchovies as well and, together with the Humboldt Penguin, are facing the threats of overfishing, coastal development and climate change that affect the great Humboldt Current marine ecosystem.
An Ecosystem Under Seige
According to the 2007 report, "Priorities for Coastal and Marine Conservation in South America," the Peruvian coast represents about 10 percent of country’s total territory but houses nearly 52 percent of its population, creating a siege on the natural habitat that is home to the Humboldt Penguin and many other species.
The world’s largest fishery is located on the Peruvian coast and is partly responsible for the depletion of area populations of anchoveta—a Peruvian species of anchovy.
Unfortunately for the penguin and other marine birds and mammals that depend on the anchoveta as their primary food source, anchovy fishing has grown to the point where a significant portion of the fish in the area is being harvested, threatening their survival.
Climate Change and an Ecosystem on Brink
As overfishing, coastal development, and pollution tax the fragile Peruvian coast, climate change threatens to push the area to the brink of collapse. The coastal area, and the Humboldt Current in particular, is susceptible to the influences of El Niño events, which can cause extreme food shortages for marine life. During these events, the cold north-flowing waters of the Humboldt Current are displaced by warmer waters flowing from the central Pacific. This displacement causes a reduction in phytoplankton, the building block of the Humboldt food chain, creating food shortages across the area.
Climate change has been shown to be one of the primary drivers of an increase in El Niño events, and the presence of an El Niño shift has caused a measurable decrease in the Humboldt penguin population, as well as the population of other marine animals.
New Marine Protected Area
Recognizing the natural and economic importance of its coastal biological diversity, the Peruvian government has committed to establishing reserves to protect its aquatic resources. This commitment resulted in the official declaration, on December 30, 2009, of the Guano Islands and Capes National Reserve, which includes 22 islands and 11 capes along the Peruvian coast.