Declining little penguin populations in the region were brought to the attention of the Kangaroo Island Natural Resources Management Board in 2011.
The board sought advice from SA and Tasmanian experts in the fields of seal and penguin research and management.
Department for Environment and Natural Resources regional manager Bill Haddrill said advice indicated some penguin populations on Kangaroo Island were in decline, but not all colonies. The exact reason or full extent of decline was unknown.
“Research in penguin colonies across Australia suggests a range of threatening processes are having an impact on penguins,” he said.
“Predation on eggs and chicks by dogs, cats and rats is significant in some colonies, as are human disturbances in the form of habitat loss, habitat modification, and visitation.
“Penguin populations also fluctuate as a result of a range of natural processes including food availability and storm damage. NZ fur seal predation is possibly a contributing factor, but not the sole factor, in penguin colony declines.”
Advice provided to the board included the fact that despite their name, NZ fur seals are native to Australia, including Kangaroo Island, and that NZ fur seal predation on penguins is a natural phenomenon.
The latest data estimates the SA population of NZ fur seals at 80,000 to 100,000 animals, with Kangaroo Island supporting about 36,000.
The board also received advice that attempts to manage seal populations interstate and overseas had been expensive and largely ineffectual.
DENR does not support the culling, sterilisation or relocation of NZ fur seals.
Mr Haddrill said the issue of declining penguin populations in some colonies was broader than Kangaroo Island, and that the board did not have the resources to deliver the necessary research.
The board has asked the Minister for Sustainability, Environment and Conservation to research urgently the interaction between little penguins and NZ fur seals and if results indicated that the interaction adversely affected little penguin populations, to research ways to minimise the impact.
Research to investigate the extent and causes of declines in little penguin populations has started across the Adelaide and Mount Lofty Ranges and Kangaroo Island Natural Resources Management regions.
Mr Haddrill said the board expanded its penguin monitoring program in 2011 to include an island-wide survey of penguin colonies. This survey builds on the information collected from the Kingscote census over the past six years.
“The board also started a program to determine the extent of land-based impacts on the Kingscote penguin colony through the use of surveillance equipment. The footage captured a range of threats, including the impact of cats,” he said.
“More research is required to better understand population pressures and trends in little penguin colonies. This research should be inclusive of all threats to little penguins, and not simply focus on NZ fur seal predation”.