The Nesting Instinct: Dee Boersma’s Quest to Protect South America’s Penguins

The Penguin Project

P. Dee Boersma has spent the last 40 years studying penguins. Her research is in the area of conservation biology and has focused on seabirds as indicators of environmental change. A professor of conservation science in the University of Washington’s Department of Biology, Boersma has directed the Magellanic Penguin Project at Punta Tombo, Argentina, since 1982.

How did your interest in penguins begin, and why Argentina?

I worked on penguins for nearly 40 years. I started 28 seasons ago working on Magellanic penguins with the Wildlife Conservation Society because a Japanese company wanted to harvest penguins and turn them into oil, protein, and high-fashion golf gloves. We are about to go to Argentina and start our field season as the penguins are returning from their winter migration. I’m interested in a variety of species. I’m headed back to work on the Galapagos penguin, which is the first species of penguin I fell in love with.

Penguins are ocean sentinels and they tell us a lot about the environment of the ocean. They’re sensitive to oil pollutants and have a high demand for food, so you find penguins wherever there is high oceanic productivity in the Southern Hemisphere. You get them in the Galapagos and on the coasts of Chile, Africa, and New Zealand. More than half the species of penguins are in trouble because they are so dependent on highly productive areas and clean water.

What will you be doing in the Galapagos?

We’re going to try to increase the Galapagos penguin population by building them good lava nests. The population is about a quarter of what it was in the ’70s. El Niño events, where the water gets warm and productivity declines, have increased in frequency and severity. We had a very intense El Niño in the Galapagos in ’83–’84 and another in ’97–’98. Those were so intense that, not only did we see ramifications around the globe, but a lot of adult Galapagos penguins died. When El Niños are strong, the waters around the Galapagos become like a desert and are relatively unproductive, while the land, because of the increased rainfall, becomes lush and all the finches can breed. For Galapagos penguins, when the ocean becomes warm and unproductive there’s nowhere to go. If penguins run out of food, they starve.

So I’m going to the Galapagos to work with the national park to build lava shelters that give penguins a place in the shade to nest. If they nest in the open, their eggs fry and by about 10:00 a.m. the penguin is so hot it has to go jump in the ocean. We’ll build nests so when ocean conditions are good all the penguins can have good nests. We hope we can help increase the populations this way.

Is building nests really a solution?

The major solution to the problems penguins face is for humans to quit changing the climate. We have to change the intensity of human consumption and reduce human numbers if we want to live in the style in which Americans have become accustomed. So it’s a human problem and a human consumption problem. Penguins are sentinels telling us we have to modify our behavior if we want to have penguins sharing our world.

I’m old enough to remember when there were three billion people on this planet. Now we have seven billion. I’d like to see population control done in a humane way—the earth at the consumption style that we’d like to live at will only support maybe two billion people. We can do this with birth control or death control, and I’d rather have it be birth control and people paying the real costs for their impact on the environment.

There are a lot of things that humans can do to reduce conflicts with wildlife. We have to live more lightly on the earth. Along the coasts of Argentina, thousands of penguins were being oiled by illegal dumping of petroleum, but that’s changed. In 1997 the province moved tanker lanes 40 kilometers farther offshore, and illegal dumping was largely stopped. But oil in the water is still a problem in southern Brazil, Uruguay, and other parts of Argentina. There are 25 rehabilitation centers to address birds being oiled, and what we really need to do is stop the illegal dumping of petroleum into our oceans.

This is a chronic problem in the environment. Now, with the Gulf oil spill, we all have become more aware, but it has been going on even when it’s not on the television. Humans may not be aware of it, but individual birds are always aware of it because it kills them.

So there are lots of things individuals can do. We can do business better and enforce laws. We can improve our accounting systems so people pay more accurately for their consumption. You and I don’t pay for the full cost of our actions, and we must pay more attention to these real costs. We buy computers, then we throw them out without thinking about where they go. If you are going to buy a computer you should have to pay a cost for its proper disposal. It would change how we interact with our environment.

Why do people dump oil into the ocean? Because it’s cheaper. We have to get the cost right so we pay for the real environmental cost of our actions.

Can you give an example of a system, particularly one you’ve been involved in, that is actually getting better?

In the 1980s, 20,000 adults and 20,000 juvenile Magellanic penguins were being oiled every year on their migrations from Argentina to Brazil and back. We needed ocean zoning and migration corridors for penguins. People moved the tanker lanes and public opinion stopped much of the illegal dumping. In the province of Chubut, Argentina, up to 80 percent of dead penguins were covered in oil in the 1980s and now it’s almost none. That’s because we’ve moved tanker lanes and there’s not so much ballast water from the ships with petroleum being dumped. The illegal dumping saved the companies money, but it killed penguins.

But penguins are facing new problems—they get caught in fishing nets and drown; they’re starving as we are sucking fish out of the oceans. The increase in toxic algae blooms is contaminating fish that the penguins, and humans, eat. We’ve got to change how we do business with the environment. Individuals can make a huge difference through what we buy and what we do.

So how can we achieve more successes in the oceans?

Ocean zoning is one important tool. We have to be willing to zone the ocean and say, “some things you can do here and some you can’t.” We’ve done that on land and we need to increase these efforts in the oceans. Why should the high seas be open to everyone? We need to reverse many of our policies. Why should it be cheaper to develop wild land? We should redevelop what we have spoiled and reduce our ecological footprint on land and in the ocean.

Do you think the Great Barrier Reef is an example of effective zoning?

It’s a huge step in the right direction, but we need this on the Patagonian shelf and around the world.

Has the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) been successful?

I think it’s a really important treaty and one of the only instruments we have to control fisheries in the Antarctic. It’s based on a precautionary principle. Before starting a new krill fishery, they have to show that what they’re doing will not ruin the resource.