With Britain now moving to explore for oil and gas in the Falkland Islands, Argentina has cried foul. Buenos Aires claims that the Falklands, or the Malvinas as Argentines refer to the islands, represent a “colonial enclave” in the south Atlantic. The islands have been a British possession since 1833, and the local inhabitants consider themselves thoroughly British. Yet, Argentina claims the Malvinas as the country inherited them from the Spanish crown in the early 1800s. In 1982 Argentina seized the islands but was later expelled by a British naval force. The war was short but bloody, costing 650 Argentine and 250 British lives.
Since then the Falklands issue has moved to the backburner, but now the two countries are again at loggerheads as a result of energy resources. That’s because recently, the Brits started to drill for oil and gas beneath the Falklands seabed. But ominously, just 150 miles west of the British drilling, Argentine-Spanish consortium Repsol YPF also wants to drill, thus raising the prospect of a hydrocarbon race in the area.
The Magellanic penguin. Photo by: NASA.
There’s a lot of oil and profits to be made here: geologists estimate that there are up to 60 billion barrels of oil near the Falklands. Britain is hardly the military superpower it once was, but would probably win another showdown. The Brits have an airfield on Port Stanley with four Typhoon jets and other air defenses. That’s not very much, but the Royal Navy has already dispatched a submarine and other vessels to the area.
Recently, ARA Drummond, an Argentine vessel, had an encounter on the high seas with HMS York, a British destroyer. Drummond withdrew, but Argentine nationalism has been ratcheted up with veterans of the 1982 war protesting London outside the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. Argentina says it has no desire for a military confrontation, but insists it has the right to seize international supply ships headed to the Falklands and argues that British ships need permission to head into the area. Britain rejects any such notion.
Argentina has brought its claims to the United Nations, where the South American nation might attract diplomatic support. However, the Argentines undermine their cause by emphasizing narrow-minded energy sovereignty and ongoing plans for oil and gas exploration. The South Atlantic needs less oil exploration, not more.
Patagonia, a rugged region stretching hundreds of miles into Tierra del Fuego, has been particularly hard hit by oil development. The plight of one emblematic local animal, the Magellanic penguin, highlights Argentine negligence and bodes ill for the South American nation’s Falklands bid.
Plight of the Penguin
White and grey Magellanic penguins are more than two feet tall and weigh 10 to 12 pounds. They do not live in Antarctic waters, preferring instead to spend their time in temperate areas of the Southern Hemisphere. As a result, the creatures come into more frequent contact with humans and pollution than the four other penguin species that breed in Antarctica.
The Magellanic penguins on the Patagonia coast. Photo by: Tim Gage.
Like Magellan, these penguins are consummate mariners and spend half the year at sea in and around the Falklands, Argentina and southern Chile. More than a million breeding pairs are thought to nest in rookeries off the southern tip of South America and the Falklands, a neighboring archipelago. Magellanic penguins typically live in burrows and feed on offshore fish.
For the sake of the marine environment and the Magellanic penguin, Britain and Argentina need to ratchet back oil development, not promote further exploration. In recent years, scientists have grown increasingly concerned about oil pollution and its effects on these captivating animals.
Researchers are particularly concerned with the Magellanic penguin breeding home and rookery located at Punta Tombo in Argentina. Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, scientists believe the penguin population at Punta Tombo may have peaked at about 400,000 breeding pairs. But by 1997 that number had gone down to some 250,000 pairs of penguins and some ten years later the population stood at 200,000 breeding pairs.
While scientists believe that over fishing and coastal development may account for this plummeting population, oil pollution also plays a role. As they ingest oil from preening their feathers, the penguins’ immune systems are put at risk and the animals become more prone to disease. What’s more, the oil gives rise to lesions in the penguins’ stomachs and as a result the animals have difficulty digesting food.
In addition, penguins which encounter oil on the high seas have problems staying warm in cold south Atlantic waters. The oiled penguins wind up seeking refuge on land, but many of the shivering creatures will perish. That’s because oil destroys the insulating quality of penguins’ feathers. Consequently, the oiled penguin dies of hypothermia. For years, penguins have been washing up on the Patagonian shore coated with oil. At Punta Tombo the scene has been pitiful: arriving penguins must pass over other dead penguins covered in oil.
The Falkland sea showing the Argentine coast and the Falkland islands. Photo by: NASA.
One particularly horrifying episode occurred in 1991, when a mysterious oil spill in Patagonia enveloped tens of thousands of Magellanic penguins with crude as the animals were migrating south to Punta Tombo. At the time, scientists reported that at least 16,000 penguins, and possibly double that number, perished as a result of oil contamination.
Tracing down the criminals proved more difficult: sailors told scientists that local fishermen were dumping unneeded diesel fuel into the water so that their boats could hold more fish. It’s unlikely, however, that fishermen were the sole culprits: around the time of the spill a tanker carrying crude oil had a spill or discharged its oily ballast at precisely the same time as penguins were migrating south. At the time, few companies had tankers plying Patagonian waters, just Exxon, Shell and YPF (notably, the same Argentine-Spanish firm which currently seeks to explore for oil around the Falklands).
Dr. Dee Boersma is a professor of zoology and environmental studies at the University of Washington in Seattle and a leading penguin expert. After tagging penguins with tiny sensors and radio transmitters which were glued to the animals’ back feathers, Boersma followed the creatures through use of satellite technology. What she found alarmed her: the Magellanic penguins’ foraging range, once thought to be relatively close to shore, was getting larger.
Because of oil pollution resulting from spills and the dumping of oil-contaminated bilge close to shore, penguins were obliged to hunt so far from Argentine rookeries that chicks would starve to death waiting for food. Indeed, penguins would have to cover up to 324 miles, or 147 miles from the Punta Tombo rookery, to find sustenance. Back at the nest, the bird’s mate had no other choice but to let offspring die of hunger: to leave the nest would expose the chicks to predators.
Penguins in the Crossfire
The Falklands archipelago is an important part of the wildlife equation in the South Atlantic. South Jason, an island about four miles long, supports populations of black-browed albatross (also known as mollymawks), endangered rockhopper penguin, Magellanic penguin, and prions (a small white seabird similar to a petrel).
The Rockhopper penguin. Photo by: Samuel Blanc.
The longstanding territorial dispute between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands, now being exacerbated by oil rivalry, complicates matters further for local penguins. Indeed, as Boersma herself has noted, the political tension “does not make negotiation of conservation treaties easier, but somehow those penguins urgently need international protection.” Boersma’s words have the ring of truth: in recent years, penguins have suffered as a result of the longstanding military legacy in the Falklands.
During the 1982 Falklands war, the Argentines laid thousands of mines on the islands. One mined area is Kidney Cove, a beach lying across from Port Stanley which is home to gentoo, king, rockhopper and Magellanic penguins. In the best of times, such restricted areas proved a boon to penguins as they were no-go zones for people. But in 2001, British troops started a fire on Jason Island, a nature reserve owned by the Falklands government, which wreaked havoc on penguins. The soldiers lit the fire in an effort to remove unexploded ordinance from the 1982 Falklands war.
At the time, conservationists claimed that the blaze, which burned for five days, killed hundreds of rockhopper penguin and albatross chicks, in addition to some adult birds. When the fire got out of control, the British military dropped water from helicopters and called out local fire crews. Teams deployed from Port Stanley reported seeing burnt penguins pitifully crawling through the grass as they attempted to flee the blaze, fanned by gusty winds. By the time the conflagration had subsided, 90% of tussock grass housing the nesting colonies was destroyed.
Falklands Murder Mystery
The military rivalry between Britain and Argentina spells bad news for penguins, and the oil race to the bottom will surely make matters worse. However, perhaps even more seriously, all that oil development in the south Atlantic will add more carbon emissions to the atmosphere and this in turn will cause disturbances to the world’s oceans, thereby destabilizing the penguins’ environment yet further.
Rockhopper penguins jumping a crevice on Saunders Island in the Falkland Islands. Photo by: Ben Tubby.
In light of the recent past, we can’t afford to go down that road: in June, 2002, rockhopper penguins in the Falklands suffered mass starvation. On Saunders Island, more than 2,000 of the adult animals died, which represented more than a quarter of the colony’s population. While scientists declared that the cause was unclear, they added that melting Antarctic ice had left deep waters near the Falklands colder than usual. The cold waters, researchers reported, could have disrupted plankton production and reduced food availability [the 2002 die off was not the first time, however, that rockhoppers had been decimated: a similar mass killing occurred in 1986, which resulted in a halving of the population].
As if things could become no worse, six months after the rockhoppers died off Magellanic and gentoo penguins in the Falklands got hit by a mysterious ailment. As penguins washed up dead, paralyzed and dying on island shores, researchers grew puzzled. Why had the animals failed to reach their breeding grounds? Scientists had no clear explanation, though one possible hypothesis was poisoning via “red tide.” Penguins affected by the phenomenon turn up with empty stomachs which look as if they have been washed with acid. Otherwise, however, the animals appear well fed and healthy.
Red tide has been linked to an explosive increase of a type of sea plant called dinoflagellates, microscopic red phytoplankton. Scientists say these algal blooms are increasing in frequency and intensity around the world, a trend which could be associated with climate change and alterations in surface water temperatures, amongst other causes. While melting glaciers may cool waters, red tide is thought to be associated with warmer temperatures. Problematically, larger animals feed on the tiny plants which concentrate toxins in tissues.
Penguin from Ipanema
Brazilian beaches are known for scanty bathing suits and tanning lotion, not penguins. Yet, in recent years pleasure seekers have been shocked to find an enormous number of these creatures washing up on shore. While ocean currents could be expected to propel some Magellanic penguins as far as Brazil, far from their homes in southern Argentina, 2008 was different.
Swimming Magellanic penguin. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
In that year, more than 1,000 penguins floated ashore looking gaunt and exhausted. Some had lost three quarters of their body weight. On Copacabana beach, lifeguards watched dumbfounded, brushed up on how to administer first aid to the animals, and set up triage stations for the birds. Drying the penguins with blankets and towels, the guards arranged for the animals’ transport to local zoos. Sometimes, guards would have to stop beachgoers from seeking to take care of the birds. Not knowing any better and thinking that the penguins would enjoy the cold, locals would place the creatures in buckets of ice.
In desperation, zoos built new storage spaces for the traumatized arrivals. Veterinarians attended penguins with broken flippers or open wounds, while injecting the animals with vitamins, glucose injections and antibiotics. Some penguins lay catatonic in plastic crates. In order to relieve the pressure on zoos and marine centers, some Brazilian animal lovers took in other survivors. In a surreal scene, people purchased plastic igloos for the penguins and attempted to feed the young with whole sardines. When that failed, caretakers prepared fish smoothies in the blender.
Scientists did not know what had caused the massive penguin exodus, though one possibility was that ocean currents had been disrupted. Normally, Magellanic penguins leave their colonies in southern Argentina and ride the cold and plankton-laden waters of the Falklands Current, looking for sardines. The Falklands Current flows north along the coast of South America and eddies from a second current, the Benguela, flow across the Atlantic towards Brazil. Normally, penguins would turn back after coming into contact with warmer Benguela waters, but in 2008 the current was exceptionally cold.
Today, scientists are only beginning to gather information on eddies moving across the Atlantic and seek to understand where and why the Falklands Current ends. Antonio Busalacchi, an oceanography and climate expert at the University of Maryland, declares “Clearly we’ve been seeing changes in the ocean circulation in the Southern Hemisphere. The question for the future, and we don’t have an answer yet, is how is that going to shift against the backdrop of climate change?”
Perhaps, human activity has thrown off penguins’ migratory cycle. “The penguin population is intimately linked to their supplies of food, so this suggests something is happening to the population of fish they eat,” remarks Marcelo Bertellotti, a biologist at the National Patagonic Centre in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. “It appears the penguins are not finding fish where they normally do, and one reason could be that warming waters and climate change have impacted the fish population,” he adds.
Falklands: Further Oil Development Must Be Halted
In light of these disturbing developments, what is urgently needed right now is more scientific study and international environmental cooperation in the south Atlantic, not saber rattling. Unfortunately, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner seems to be whipping up nationalist fervor in order to divert public attention from her own political problems on the domestic front, much as the Argentine military junta calculated in 1982.
Perhaps, if Argentina wished to attract more sympathy for its claims on the Falklands, it would declare a moratorium on oil exploration in the archipelago. Were Kirchner to make such an argument and have credibility, however, she would have to come to grips with the pernicious environmental effects of oil development in her own country.
Kirchner knows all about it as she’s had longstanding ties to Patagonia. Her husband and Argentine president before her Néstor Kirchner was at one time a governor in the region. Cristina, meanwhile, held several positions in the local legislature. It might be said that the Kirchners are, in fact, true “penguins,” as inhabitants of Patagonia are known in Argentina.
Yet, President Kirchner is an unlikely environmental champion on the international stage as she has already heralded oil development in the Gulf of San Jorge in Patagonia. Reportedly, Venezuela’s state oil company PdVSA will contribute to oil exploration in the area, hardly a promising sign given the firm’s negative environmental track record at home.
Boersma, who has become a veritable Jane Goodall of penguins, recently published a paper in the journal Bioscience. In it, she warned that some penguin species might be headed for extinction because of catastrophic changes in oceans and coastlines. She wants a broad international group to check on the most substantial colonies of each penguin species at least once every five years to look after populations, determine the most severe threats to them, and interpret what any changes might signify for the wellbeing of the world’s oceans.
Boersma has made a succinct case for further action. Hopefully, Britain and Argentina are paying attention.
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010). Visit his website, www.nikolaskozloff.com.
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