THE Tasmanian government is planning a statewide Penguin Advisory Group to secure the future of little penguins following a number of large-scale deaths caused by dog attacks in recent years.
A Friends of Bicheno Little Penguin group will also be formed as part of a response to the deaths of 45 penguins in November – 30 from the original attack, and a further 15 bodies discovered later.
About 70 people attended a public meeting in Bicheno on Wednesday to find solutions to problems facing little penguins, including threats from dogs and cats and a lack of research into local penguin numbers.
The wildlife management branch of the Environment Department gave an update that it was establishing an advisory group to better co-ordinate efforts to secure the future of little penguins in Tasmania.
Meeting facilitator Lucy Landon-Lane said it was a positive development since an initial meeting in December.
“We really need DPIPWE to do statewide monitoring because there’s very little known about where they are, how many there are and how they’re faring,” she said.
More penguin attacks in Tasmania:
“In Bicheno, we’re looking at things like appropriate signage, possibly installing tunnels under roads so penguins have safe access across roads, and finding out what we as a community can do with authorities.
“Some of the major concerns are off-leash dogs and feral cats, as well as appropriate behaviour from visitors.”
The meetings were prompted by the deaths of dozens of penguins at Waubs Bay Beach in Bicheno in November, suspected to be the result of a dog attack.
DPIPWE investigators found a dog near breeding colonies in rocks and traced it to its Bicheno owner, who was issued an infringement noticed for failing to keep their dog secure. The dog was not linked to the penguin killings.
The Earth Ocean Network organised the public meeting, and would write to Premier Will Hodgman to highlight the issues raised.
Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor encouraged residents to write to the premier to request funding for statewide monitoring and resources for little penguin protection in the upcoming state budget.
Little penguin behaviour in Tasmania changing with warming ocean
While little penguin colonies in Tasmania face immediate threat from off-leash dogs and feral cats, researchers have noticed changing behaviour in their annual cycle of breeding, nesting and moulting.
Dr Eric Woehler, adjunct researcher at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, started researching penguins in Tasmania 40 years ago when their annual pattern was set: a spring arrival, summer breeding, autumn mault and winter at sea.
But in recent years the cycle has become much less predictable – similar to those experienced by penguins in the warmer climates of the mainland.
“Now we have recorded them breeding from winter through to late summer,” Dr Woehler said.
“As water temperatures are warming, that confinement of the breeding season to summer is less constrained.
“Birds have changed their breeding system, which we believe is a function of warmer ocean temperatures bringing changes to food availability. If the water temperature gets too warm, they won’t be able to find food.”
Little penguins are spread from Western Australia to New South Wales, including strongholds in the Bass Strait islands and Tasmania.
A lack of a co-ordinated approach means population estimates are difficult.
Dr Woehler said a kill like that at Bicheno had a long-lasting effect on local penguin numbers.
“This was the third or fourth attack in the last few years,” he said.
“We don’t know what the total population size in Bicheno is, but any attacks like this have an impact and can take years or decades to recover from.”