Zoologists call for beach closures to reduce impact on wildlife
University of Otago zoologists are calling for seasonal beach closures to be considered at sites where increasing numbers of visitors are likely to have detrimental impacts on wildlife.
Melanie Young and Gemma Bell from the Zoology Department together with Professors Yolanda van Heezik and Phil Seddon evaluated the effectiveness of the closure of a yellow-eyed penguin breeding colony at Boulder Beach on the Otago Peninsula to the public to reduce visitor disturbance.
They compared reproductive success five years before and five years during the closure with success at an adjacent site at Sandfly Bay, which the public can access, during the breeding season, over the same time periods.
Professor van Heezik explains that while the beach closure did not result in an increase in chick survival or weight at Boulder Beach, trends at Sandfly Bay suggested that without the closure, chick survival at Boulder Beach would likely have declined. Chick survival decreased at Sandfly Bay over the same timeframe, while chick survival at Boulder Beach did not decline, but remained constant during the closure years.
"The beach closure was beneficial because it appeared to buffer adverse environmental factors, so that chick survival remained constant rather than declining," Professor van Heezik says.
The research team would like policy makers to consider implementing seasonal beach closures at more sites.
"Beach closures might be difficult to implement because of public expectations regarding free access to coastal land in New Zealand, but they should be considered at sites where increasing numbers of visitors are likely to have detrimental impacts on wildlife," Professor van Heezik says.
"Without urgent action, these culturally important animals will likely be extinct on mainland New Zealand within the next few decades."
Yellow-eyed penguins, one of the world's rarest penguins, now have endangered status as populations are declining and are predicted to become extinct on the mainland by 2060. Despite being sensitive to human presence, tourists can gain free and unregulated access to several yellow-eyed penguin breeding areas.
Professor van Heezik explains that human presence can result in lower breeding success.
Tourism numbers to coastal Otago sites have increased substantially in the last couple of decades. For example, one North Otago breeding site is visited annually by an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 tourists.
Where beach closures are not possible, the researchers recommend a range of strategies be adopted to minimise visitor impacts on breeding colonies including public education.
"This species faces a lot of challenges, and the fact that the positive impact of the beach closure was merely to prevent further declines in chick survival, rather than resulting in an increase in chick survival, reflects these multiple challenges," Professor van Heezik says.
"Some of the threats to this species are really hard to manage, such as environmental changes resulting from climate change. Managing tourist numbers is something we can actually do that will make a difference, in terms of buffering environmental factors."