Marine advocates are calling a large number of little blue penguins washing up along the Bay of Plenty coastline the "biggest penguin die-off in many years".
The Department of Conservation (DoC) Tauranga office had answered an average of five calls each week since February, and Western Bay Wildlife Trust's Julia Graham said the trust had 58 calls about dead penguins in two weeks.
"All of the penguins were dead, or died within a short time of arriving on land," Graham said.
Hundreds of shearwaters, petrels, prions, shags and penguins, including dead poisonous pufferfish, were reported to have washed up along the coastline in January this year.
Graham said a combination of factors including lack of food, rough weather and moulting had triggered the mass little blue penguin fatalities. "The combination of all of these events have led to the biggest penguin die off in many years.
"There is very little we can do to help these birds apart from offering them peace and quiet," she said.
Katikati community ranger for DoC Tracy Mezger said the Tauranga office had received a higher number of calls about dead penguins than this time last year.
Mezger said it had received an average of five calls each week for dead, injured, or unwell penguins since February.
"About half the calls have been for penguins already dead," she said. "They are a combination of single penguins or multiple penguins dead and washed ashore, both juvenile and adults."
Most of the calls were about penguins washed up on Mount Maunganui Main Beach, which Mezger said was likely because more people visited that beach than others.
Papamoa beach, Pukehina beach, and Waihi beach were the next most reported.
"Since February 1, 2018 we have received 20 calls about penguins after hours, through our response officer system."
Mount Mainstreet manager Ingrid Fleming said she had started to receive calls about dead penguins washing up on Mount Main Beach, including two last week.
"There are members of the public reaching out to help these birds," she said.
Fleming said she referred the calls to DoC and encouraged others who found penguins washed up on the beach to do the same.
DoC principal science adviser Graeme Taylor said there was a strong correlation between El Nino and La Nina seasons and the number of penguins found dead on New Zealand beaches.
Taylor said last year El Nino conditions produced a cooler, well-oxygenated sea that produced plenty of fish, which meant a lot of penguin chicks left their nests and went to sea at the end of last year.
Sea conditions changed to La Nina in spring and have continued this summer, increasing the sea temperature to warmer than average, he said.
"This means fish have been harder for the young penguins to find," he said.
"It's likely that lots of young penguin chicks left their nests in November and December. They are now struggling to find food as they're on their own and learning to fend for themselves at sea."
Taylor said the dead and dying little blue penguins washing up on beaches were very light, normally less than 500g.
How many penguin calls each week?
Papamoa Beach: 5
Waihi Beach: 2
Mount Maunganui Beach: 9
Pukehina Beach: 4
More dead penguins:
- Another large penguin die-off event occurred in 1998.
- 3517 little blue penguins washed up dead on beaches around New Zealand.
- This was during a La Nina summer after a big El Nino in 1997.
What to do if you find a penguin:
- Please dig a hole and bury it if it is dead
- Call 0800SICKPEnguin and leave details of the area/location
- If you find a live penguin, do not try to put it in the water. If possible, place it in the sand dunes or under a rock away from the water's edge and out of sight from people and dogs.
- If a penguin has visible wounds, such as from a dog attack or broken wing etc, please call 0800 SICKPEnguin, or contact ARRC on 5799115