The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia says increased protection for Macquarie Island will help seals, penguins, whales, fish and other seabirds deal with rising climate change pressures.
Roughly halfway between Australia and Antarctica, the island recorded the hottest temperatures on record, 17 degrees Celsius, in February 2022 – about three degrees above the previous record.
Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has released a proposed new zoning plan that boosts highly protected marine areas and extends the current Macquarie Island Marine Park to critical habitats for wildlife to the north, west and south of the Island.
“WWF has a long history of advocating for protection of Macquarie Island and helped create the marine park in 1999 and in 2007 drew global attention to the pest issues devastating wildlife,” said Emily Grilly, Antarctic Conservation Manager, WWF-Australia.
“The expanded and upgraded zoning of the current marine park is a positive step by Minister Plibersek. If approved it will provide a refuge to help the island’s iconic species adapt to the changing climate.
“This announcement is an important contribution to conservation in the oceans of the southern hemisphere – a region where dramatic climate change impacts may threaten unique wildlife,” she said.
Each year Macquarie Island plays host to an incredible wildlife spectacle as multiple species come ashore from the southern ocean in enormous numbers to breed.
It’s estimated more than 1.7 million royal penguins, a species endemic to Macquarie Island, turn up in one of the greatest congregations of seabirds in the world.
An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 king penguins arrive on Macquarie Island – the only breeding site for this species in the Southern Ocean’s Pacific sector.
The island is also home to gentoo and rockhopper penguins and four species of albatross.
It’s estimated 80,000 elephant seals congregate during the breeding season. Macquarie is also the only island where all three fur seals - Antarctic, sub-Antarctic and New Zealand – are found.
Beginning in the 1800s and into the 1900s, king penguins, royal penguins and elephant seals were slaughtered to produce blubber oil.
Macquarie was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1933 but introduced pests such as mice, rats and rabbits were destroying vegetation, causing landslides which killed wildlife.
In 2006, WWF and Peregrine Adventures pledged $100,000 for a recovery program and in 2007 a WWF-commissioned, scientific report “Macquarie Island in danger” publicised the crisis and helped generate action.
In 2014, the island was declared pest free after a successful eradication project. Wildlife had started to recover after over a century of exploitation, but now climate change may be having an impact.
The number of gentoo penguin breeding pairs on Macquarie Island has halved in the past twenty years.
And the numbers of king penguin chicks have started to gradually decrease since annual counting began in 2007.
Statutory consultation on the proposal to expand the Macquarie Island Marine Park will commence in the coming weeks.