Stunning Yellow-Eyed Penguins, Already Endangered, Are Being Drowned by Fishermen and Could Disappear Soon

The yellow-eyed penguin is dangerously close to no longer existing. Ross Land/Getty Images

The endangered yellow-eyed penguin is vanishing, and commercial fishing is likely to blame. Close to half of the island's breeding population, already tiny, has disappeared. The current numbers are the lowest they've been in 27 years, and conservationists fear that if something isn't done quickly, this seabird could soon be gone.

Yellow-eyed penguin populations are declining all over New Zealand, but this drop is most severe on the island of Whenua Hou, also known as Codfish Island, in southern New Zealand. Whenua Hou is a predatory-free sanctuary island dedicated mainly to protection of the kakapo bird, but also the yellow-eyed penguin, along with several other bird species. Numbering nearly 7,000 less than 20 years ago, according to The Guardian, yellow-eyed penguins now total fewer than 2,000.

The most recent survey of the yellow-eyed penguin, also known as hoiho, has shown that bird populations may further decline, with only 14 nests found on the entire Codfish Island—compared to 24 found last year, Eco Watch reported. Bird populations are also dropping in other parts of New Zealand. Scientists found only about 250 nests in the total southern east coast of New Zealand, compared to 261 nests found last year.

Forest & Bird, a New Zealand conservation nonprofit, thinks the birds are likely being killed by fishing nets. These nets may accidentally catch and drown the penguins as fisherman scour the ocean for commercial fish, The Independent reported.

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Usually, commercial fishing boats will have an independent specialist on board who will review any suspicious activity, such as the boats catching and killing the rarest penguin in the world. However, according to Eco Watch, only 3 percent of commercial trawlers in New Zealand had official observers onboard to report on penguin deaths, which means that the vast majority of these deaths could go unreported.

"It's simply unbelievable that almost every penguin killed in the set net fishery was killed on a boat that had an official observer onboard," Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague in a statement. The organization called on the Ministry of Primary Industries, which oversees the fishing industry to "get more of their observers onto set net vessels and prioritize putting cameras on set netting boats."

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Hoiho means "noise shouter" in Māori, the language spoken by the indigenous Māori people of New Zealand, where the bird is native. This penguin is an important part of New Zealand culture and is even on the country's five-dollar bill. It's also unusual: Unlike most penguins, which tend to be social, the yellow-eyed penguin is more solitary and prefers to live alone rather than in a group.

A drowned yellow-eyed penguin caught in a fishing net. Ministry of Fisheries, New Zealand

Fishing boats are not the only threat to the penguins. Cats and ferret-like animals called stoats also prey on the birds' nests, and humans unknowingly messing with birds' nests can also lower the chicks chances of survival. A recent blood parasite outbreak also killed hundreds of the birds, Scientific American reported. Waters warmed by climate change have also depleted the penguin's food supply.

All in all, it's not looking too good for this penguin. Experts hope that better surveillance of industrial fishing may be enough to save the hoiho's life.