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Dr Richard Sherley

Exeter researcher awarded Pew Fellowship to discover if commercial fishing harms endangered penguin populations

Experts will work to discover if commercial fishing is harming endangered African penguins by making it harder to forage for food in the ocean.

Dr Richard Sherley from the University of Exeter will use GPS tracking and other technology to follow penguins in South Africa to record how deep they have to dive and how far they have to travel to find fish.

Penguins eat sardines and anchovies, which are also fished commercially, and the study will help researchers better understand the cost of this to penguin populations. The study could lead to solutions for more sustainable management of forage fish stocks.

Dr Sherley hopes to determine whether there is a link between sardine and anchovy fishing in the area and penguin population change and whether marine protected areas or stock-based catch limits offer solutions to offset any negative fishery effects.

The penguins will be logged over three years and at different parts of their life cycle, and parts of the ocean will be closed for fishing.

Dr Sherley said: “By understanding what is happening we can help others make policies in a more careful way. Implementing protected areas in places where they wouldn’t work harms jobs and food security and distracts from finding real solutions.

“I have been working with other researchers to examine the health of breeding adults, and the survival of chicks. We want to know if adults use less energy and breed better when fishing is not allowed where they forage. If so, there is a clear case for protecting those marine areas.”

About a third of industrial fishing catches are small pelagic fishes, known as forage fish. These species, which are used to produce animal feed, fish oil supplements, and other products, play a key role in marine food webs by serving as a link between plankton and larger ocean predators. Forage fish populations naturally fluctuate in response to environmental conditions, making it difficult to measure the full impacts of industrial fishing on them or their predators, such as seabirds.

The work is possible thanks to a Pew marine fellowship awarded to Dr Sherley. Fellows receive $150,000 from The Pew Charitable Trust to pursue a three-year project to address a pressing ocean conservation challenge. Each recipient is a midcareer scientist or expert with an outstanding record of using high-quality research to support more effective protections for the world’s marine life.

Dr Sherley will share his findings through participation in South African scientific working groups and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission’s Penguin Specialist Group.

Date: 21 February 2019