SANCCOB, together with BirdLife South Africa (BLSA), have taken a bold and crucial step to legally challenge the decision taken by the office of the Minister of the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), who has implemented no-take fishing zones for a period of 10 years around six key African penguin breeding colonies. These closures are aimed at reducing the competition between African penguins and the commercial small pelagic fisheries; however, the closures implemented are inadequate in size and we do not foresee them providing a meaningful benefit for the species.

Biodiversity Law Centre (BLC): “The BLC initiated landmark litigation in the Pretoria High Court in the interests of Africa’s only penguin species: the Endangered African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus). Instituted against the Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, the applicants’ challenge seeks the review and setting aside of the Minister’s 4 August 2023 decision on the closures to fishing around key African Penguin breeding colonies, instead of biologically meaningful closures. 

The African Penguin faces extinction in the wild by 2035 if more is not done to curb the current rate of population decline. The crisis is driven primarily by their lack of access to prey, for which they must compete with the commercial purse-seine fishery which continues to catch sardine and anchovy in the waters surrounding the six largest African Penguin breeding colonies. Critically, these six colonies are home to an estimated 90% of South Africa’s African Penguins.” READ FULL MEDIA RELEASE HERE.

The lack of the species’ prey availability – anchovy and sardine – is one of the most significant drivers of population decline for the African penguin.


Update as at 3 May 2024: The Fourth and Fifth Respondents (SAPFIA and ECPA) have filed Notices of Intention to Oppose. We have not received Notices of Intention to Oppose from the State parties; however, the State Attorney has indicated that it has come on record for the Minister. The next step in the review is for the Minister (the First Respondent) to deliver the Record of Decision. On 17 April 2024, the applicants accordingly delivered a Notice in terms of Rule 30A calling upon the Minister to deliver the Record of Decision within ten court days; this was due on 3 May 2024.

“We are calling on the Minister’s office to stand by its commitment that the African penguin will not go extinct on its watch. We also call on all our supporters to help us amplify this news by sharing social media updates, and to mobilise a powerful assembly of African penguin champions, who are geared to bring about change.”

Natalie Maskell
SANCCOB Chief Executive Officer


Current status of the African penguin

The African penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is an iconic species: an important part of South Africa’s tourism economy and a unique biodiversity asset. As the only penguin species on the African continent, the African Penguin is endemic to Namibia and South Africa. 

The population of African penguins in South Africa (home to ~90% of the global population) has decreased by 55% in the last decade. The African Penguin is currently classified as globally Endangered, but this classification is likely to change to Critically Endangered by the end of 2024 – one step away from  extinction in the wild. Find more information on the population trends of the African penguin here.

African penguin threats

Scientific studies have revealed that key threats to the African Penguin relate to:

  • prey-availability (i.e. shortage of primary food in the form of small pelagic fish, mainly anchovy and sardines.
  • noise and disturbance associated with ship-to-ship bunkering in the vicinity of African Penguin colonies (offshore re-supply of fuel)
  • vibrations and noise associated with seismic surveys
  • oiling as a result of oil spills
  • predator incursion into colonies

Given that these threats are inter-related and cumulative, several interventions have been mobilised to counter negative impacts, including threat to the African penguin, protocols to minimise impacts of oiling, and guidance around limiting predator incursions into colonies. Ultimately, the most pressing, underlying driver of population decline is lack of availability of sardine and anchovy which comprise the optimal diet for the African penguin.

African Penguin Foraging

African Penguins are specialist feeders which means they cannot easily adapt to food sources when their preferred foods (i.e. anchovy and sardine) are not available. A sustainable food supply is especially critical within a relatively small area around their colonies before and after the annual moult and during the breeding season.

During the moult, African penguins are landlocked and have to fast. If they have not accessed sufficient food in preparation, they may starve. Consequently they need to feed quickly and efficiently once returning to the sea after moulting. During breeding, African penguins’ foraging areas are constrained while they nurse their eggs and chicks.

Island Closure Experiment

Prior to 2008, there were no restrictions on the purse-seine fishery regarding where netting of fish could occur. Between 2008 and 2020 a government endorsed Island Closure Experiment was implemented to assess the impacts of purse-seine fishing of sardines and anchovy within the foraging ranges of breeding African penguins. The experiment aimed to test the effectiveness of closing sardine and anchovy fishing grounds to the small pelagic purse-seine fishery in order to improve the availability of sardine and anchovy for the African Penguins – and thus their ability to breed and feed their chicks.

Notwithstanding the aims of the experiment, questions around the effectiveness of island closures and their extent, have been controversial and resulted in an impasse over causes of the decline in African penguin numbers, between scientists in the conservation sector and scientists in the small pelagic fishing sector.

International Review Panel

Consequently, and in acknowledgement of the impasse, the Minister in the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), appointed an International Review Panel (IRP) to independently assess the results of the Island Closure Experiment and provide recommendations on the way forward based on their assessment. The IRP members comprised globally renowned experts specialised in fisheries, seabird ecology,  and economics. 

In the interim, and while the IRP was engaged in their review, the Minister in 2022, identified “interim closures” around six vulnerable colonies as a compromise solution. Subsequently, the findings of the IRP confirmed that closures to anchovy and sardine purse-seine fishing grounds,  corresponding with the core foraging ranges of African penguins, would have a positive impact on penguin breeding success – a critical factor in slowing down the extinction rate.  Moreover, the IRP confirmed that to properly test the benefits of island closures on African penguin’s survival and population recovery, these would have to be larger than the interim closures and instituted for a period of more than six years to correspond with their maturity and breeding cycles.

The Minister’s announcement in August 2023 followed the conclusion of the IRP’s independent assessment, and announced the recommendation to implement fishing limitations in the waters around the six key penguin colonies for a minimum of 10 years, with a review after six years of implementation and data collection. However, in terms of delineations of the closures, the Minister did not follow the recommendations made by the Panel, but stated that interim closures (put in place as a temporary measure in 2022) would remain in place should an agreement not be reached between the purse-seine fisheries and conservation sectors to find mutually acceptable closure extents by the end of 2023. Due to several unsuccessful attempts made by the conservation sector, it was predictable that such an agreement would not be reached.

The Panel’s findings stipulated that a balanced trade-off between commercial interests and protecting critical penguin fishing grounds is required, but this was not adhered to. Instead, inadequate interim closures are now stipulated in the anchovy and sardine purse-seine fishing permits until the close of the 2033 purse-seine fishing season, only one year before the African Penguin is predicted to become extinct in the wild at the current and alarming trajectory of the wild population.

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  • Taking Action

Ground-breaking litigation launched to protect the African Penguin from extinction 

The African Penguin has lost 97% of its population. If current trends persist, the species ...
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It’s now or never for African penguins – if we don’t halt their decline, they will go extinct 

The African penguin colony at Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town. (Photo: Gallo Images) African penguins are ...
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SANCCOB activated following reports of over 100 Cape gannets oiled with suspected ‘fish oil’ on Bird Island in Algoa Bay 

On the morning of Sunday, 17 March 2024, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation ...
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