On World Penguin Day, some cause for celebration

They're cute, charming, and quirky, and in some parts of the world, the birds are getting the love they deserve.

Courtesy of Dee Boersma
Galapagos penguins, like the penguin shown here, now have 18,000-square-miles of protected waters to swim in, thanks to the establishment of a marine reserve around the Galápagos Islands by Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa last month.

Perhaps on this year's World Penguin Day we have more cause to celebrate than in years past.

Just last month, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa introduced new regulations to protect the waters around the iconic Galápagos Islands as a marine preserve. This volcanic archipelago about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, which inspired Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, carries the designation of a World Heritage Site thanks to its rich biodiversity.

Although 97 percent of the landmass of the islands was already protected as a national park, less than 1 percent of the surrounding water was. This has allowed legal and illegal fishing to continue at a rate that endangered wildlife, such as penguins and sharks, in recent years.

Now more than 18,000 square miles, or about one third of the water around the Galápagos Islands, will be off-limits to any fishing, mining, or oil drilling, as National Geographic reports.

"The Galápagos Islands have extraordinary ecological value, and also economic value," President Correa said in a press release at the time of the designation. "The government of Ecuador supports the creation of a marine sanctuary to leave an inheritance to our children and our children's children; a wonderful world where as many species as possible are preserved for the enjoyment and knowledge of future generations," he said, according to National Geographic. 

This is welcome news for the Galápagos penguins, the rarest of the world's 17 penguin species, many of them threatened or endangered by climate change and human activity. The new law protects one of their main feeding grounds off the coast of Isabela Island.

"No other species of penguin has come this far north,” P. Dee Boersma, a conservation biologist at University of Washington in Seattle who has studied penguins for 40 years, said in an announcement earlier this month. "Pulses of upwelled water in this area are important not only to penguins, but for the rich assortment of fish and seabirds that feed in these [recently protected] areas."

She advised officials in Ecuador to protect the nutrient-rich waters that the penguins and other species rely on for food. Dr. Boersma also has studied and advocated for another species of penguins in Punta Tombo, Argentina, home of the largest colony – about half a million – of Magellanic penguins (recently famous for one's unique relationship with a human).

She began studying the Magellanic penguins in 1982. Since then, Boersma has helped divert oil tankers off the Patagonian shore to protect the birds in 1997, and to block construction of a cement trail through Punta Tombo, where hundreds of penguin chicks were preparing to hatch in 2007. The government of Argentina's Chubut Province created a preserve at Punta Tombo in 2015 to protect penguin nesting sites from developers.

"The research is what really pushes these policy decisions," said Boersma. "Science can set boundaries for what policy decisions are most effective. I think what we've done at Punta Tombo is show people what the penguins need and why we must help them."

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