Technology the key to saving hoiho penguin - experts

Source: 1News

Technology is being used to shed light on the elusive Stewart Island yellow-eyed penguin, and their underwater behaviour that, until now, remained a mystery.

There's a lack of research studying the hoiho, a species that has become critically endangered, according to Otago University Zoology Department researcher Thor Elley.

That was before his team decided to delve a bit deeper, by fitting 19 of the small southern aquatic birds with GPS trackers and cameras.

"They're giving us a really detailed pictures of what these birds are up to while they're fishing around underwater," says Elley.

"That's crucial information cause they spend most of their time at sea and that's when they're most at risk."

Researchers followed the birds over the summer breeding season and recorded almost 26,000 dives at Port Pegasus, Paterson Inlet and Codfish Island Whenua Hou.

"The data that's returned is amazing, we get really detailed information about where they prefer to go so they return to the same general areas to feed each day," says Elley.

Team member Ursula Ellenberg says the beauty of penguins is they're extremely predictable.

"It's just like us going, having a preferred pub maybe, you know."

The team say when and where the penguins like to find feed is crucial data as very few protections are in place, and their numbers are declining.

Yellow-eyed penguin Trust Conservation Science Advisor Dr Trudi Webster says a quarter of the mainland hoiho population is found on Stewart Island Rakiura.

"Unfortunately they're doing really badly down there," says Webster

"The recent survey that we did in 2020 found that there were only 44 breeding pairs and that declined by about 71% since the previous survey [in 2008]."

The penguins face many threats while searching for food such as fishing nets.

Webster hopes this data on their favourite food spots can help educate fishing crews.

"By providing this information to them hopefully then they know where to avoid and they know where risks are going to be greater."

Maps that show heavily populated spots around the island are currently being developed by Otago University to be distributed.

Elley these measures could also protect other endangered species in the area.

"Any protective measures that we put in place to protect these penguins will also protect other sea birds and other marine life that forage in the same areas that might have the same fate," says Elley.

He says the team's next step is to collect data all year round, to better understand one of the rarest penguins in the world.