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The yellow-eyed penguin is found only in New Zealand. travelwayoflife / Flickr

World's Rarest Penguin Population at Its Lowest in 27 Years

Nearly half the breeding population of endangered yellow-eyed penguins on the island sanctuary of Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) in New Zealand have vanished, according to a recent survey.

The animals—also known as "hoiho" in Māori—are known as the world's rarest penguins and are only found in New Zealand.


Only 14 nests were found on the island compared to 24 last year, the survey from the Department of Conservation revealed. Since the island is predator-free with limited human access, terrestrial influences are unlikely to be the cause, the department pointed out.

Forest & Bird, a Wellington-based conservation nonprofit, is blaming the commercial fishing industry for the loss, suggesting that the animals were most likely caught and drowned in the nets of fishing trawlers.

"Unlike previous years where disease and high temperatures caused deaths on land, this year birds have disappeared at sea," said Forest & Bird chief executive Kevin Hague in a statement. "There is an active set net fishery within the penguins' Whenua Hou foraging ground, and the indications are that nearly half the Whenua Hou hoiho population has been drowned in one or more of these nets."

Only three percent of the commercial trawlers had official observers onboard to report penguin deaths. Incidentally, Forest & Bird noted that all the recorded deaths came from the small percentage of boats that did have observers.

"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," Hague said. "As a first step, [the Ministry of Primary Industries, which oversees the fishing industry] needs to get more of their observers onto set net vessels and prioritize putting cameras on set netting boats."

"Responsible set netters need to ask the question of their fellow fishers—why is it that the only recorded by-kill of penguins appears to be on monitored fishing vessels?" he asked.

The environmental group is urging government action and for the fishing industry to agree an immediate set of actions to eliminate the risks from set netting in the penguins' feeding areas.

"We are asking [the Department of Conservation] and [the Ministry of Primary Industries] what they intend to do to save our hoiho from extinction, because at current rates of decline we are on track to lose hoiho completely from mainland New Zealand. We have also written to the Minister of Conservation, expressing our concern," Hague said.

"This bird is so special that it appears on New Zealand's five dollar note," Hague said. "The critical information about the Whenua Hou catastrophe should not have been held back from the public. Instead we need honest conversation with New Zealanders spelling out the actions that will be taken to prevent it happening again."

The yellow-eyed penguin is not faring any better elsewhere in the country. According to the Guardian, there are just 1,600 to 1,800 of these penguins left in the wild, down from nearly 7,000 in 2000. They face wide-ranging threats from climate change to disease.

"While nest numbers are similar to last year from Dunedin northwards, there are declines further south," said Department of Conservation Threatened Species ambassador Nicola Toki. "The estimate for the total southern east coast based on current counts is around 250 nests, down from 261 a year ago. This number is of concern given historically there were between 400-600 breeding pairs and the current number is the lowest for 27 years."

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Earth Day Tips From the EcoWatch Team

At EcoWatch, every day is Earth Day. We don't just report news about the environment—we aim to make the world a better place through our own actions. From conserving water to cutting waste, here are some tips and tricks from our team on living mindfully and sustainably.

Lorraine Chow, reporter

Favorite Product: Dr. Bronner's Castile soap

It's Earth-friendly, lasts for months and can be used as soap, shampoo, all-purpose cleaner and even mouthwash (but I wouldn't recommend that).

Essential Tool: Blender

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Earth Day Tip: Skip the straw

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Favorite Product: Seventh Generation products

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Essential Tool: My portable thermos

I bring it with me when I order coffee or tea to go. That way I don't have to use paper cups, which are not actually recyclable, and some coffee shops even offer me a discount for bringing my own container!

Earth Day Tip: Get involved

In 2012, researcher Brad Werner ran a computer model and found our best shot at combating climate change was for people to form a mass social movement to demand it. So if you're worried about the environment, reach out to other people in your community and talk about what you can do together to make a difference!

Tara Bracco, managing editor

Favorite Product: Collapsible water bottle

Whether you're traveling or running errands, a reusable water bottle that's light and compact will help keep you hydrated and keep you from buying bottled water.

Essential Tool: Backpack

It's great for carrying your groceries home from the store, and you won't have to use plastic bags. If you have a long shopping list, try a rolling suitcase.

Earth Day Tip: Don't waste water

Turn off the water while you brush your teeth. It can save eight gallons of water a day!

Chris McDermott, news editor

Favorite Product: Clothes from Patagonia

Patagonia makes a wide range of inspired products and their environmental policies are world class. They use only organic cotton in their clothes, and they even offer trade-ins, recycling and repairs at any time.

Essential Tool: RIVER mobile power station and solar generator

This powerful piece of mind is always ready regardless of storms and travel, for as long as one can tap the sun.

Earth Day Tip: Savor something vegan

There's no nutritional substitute for fresh, unprocessed food, but food science has revolutionized the taste and texture of vegan alternatives. For the pure delight of it, celebrate with Miyoko's Kitchen vegan cheese, Tofurky Italian sausage (30 grams of protein per serving!) and SoDelicious non-dairy dark chocolate truffle frozen dessert made with cashew milk.

Irma Omerhodzic, associate editor

Favorite Product: Living Libations's Everybody Loves the Sunshine

Unlike sunscreen, this skin product works with the sun and helps absorb the nutrients from the sun's rays while giving skin protection at the same time.

"Rather than being afraid of the sun, harmonize with it," Living Libations says. Love it!

Essential Tool: My bike

Not only is this an emission-free way to get around town, but it also gives my body the activity it needs.

Earth Day Tip: Start small

Your one "small" action isn't small at all.

Jordan Simmons, social media coordinator

Favorite Product: Sustainable clothing by Amanda Sage Collection

Designer Lana Gurevich uses patterns from Amanda's transformative paintings to create an ethically and environmentally conscious clothing line. While supporting local businesses and an eco-friendly printing method, the fabrics are made from 100 percent recycled plastic bottles.

Essential Tool: My paintbrush and set of mineral paints

I found the all natural, biodegradable mineral paints at a local farmers' market in the Sacred Valley of Peru. I used to favor working with acrylic paints until I learned about their high carbon footprint and harmful substances.

Earth Day Tip: Honor Mother Earth

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