Why would America protect nonnative penguins under the Endangered Species Act?

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Dec. 18 2008 6:43 PM

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Penguins …

Why would America protect foreign birds?

Of Petaflops and Fluorinert

The African penguin—also known as the jackass penguin—should be officially designated as an endangered species under U.S. law, according to a recommendation announced by the Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday. The agency also suggested that another six species of penguins be given "threatened" status. There aren't any species of penguins native to the United States, so why should the government put them on the list?

Because American pollution might be contributing to their deaths. The government has no need to protect penguins on U.S. soil, as the birds have been sighted in North America on only very rare occasions. (One showed up in an Alaskan fishing net in 2002, and another group was spotted by a research cruise in 1976.) But conservation groups say the birds are being threatened by global warming (which is changing their habitat) and the fishing industry (which competes for their prey), and the United States contributes to both of those problems.

Humboldt penguin. Click image to expand.
A Humboldt penguin
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Penguins wouldn't be the first nonnative species to be designated for protection under the Endangered Species Act; of the 1,891 plants and animals listed, 574 are exclusively foreign. In many cases, these species are given protected status so as to prevent the illegal purchase of endangered animals (or animal products) from abroad. In the past, penguins have been threatened by hunters: Their skins were once used to make caps and purses, Indian Ocean fishermen used their meat as fishing bait, and their eggs were a popular food item, particularly in Africa. (A 1908 New York Times article [PDF], reporting that South African penguin eggs were especially popular in London, explained that the eggs "when boiled and served cold in salad with shrimps or anchovies and cucumbers proves a real delight to the palate.") In 2005, a hoax Web site convinced some that domesticated penguins could be purchased over the Internet—just $1,465 for a macaroni penguin!—but there doesn't appear to be any genuine market today for penguins or penguin products.

Instead, advocates for listing penguins say the move would allow for other protective measures. For example, it might lead to stricter oversight of U.S.-flagged fishing vessels that sail in the Southern Hemisphere. The Fish and Wildlife Service also has an international program that provides money to programs abroad designed to protect species on the U.S. list.

Finally, environmental groups argue that placing penguins on the endangered species list could put more pressure on government agencies to cut down on greenhouse-gas emissions. (If climate change threatens an endangered species, the argument goes, government reviews intended to ensure that federal projects don't damage those plants and animals might have to take global warming into account.) There's considerable evidence to suggest that climate change is contributing to shrinking penguin populations, but the Endangered Species Act has never before been used to regulate carbon emissions. Environmental groups hoped that would change with the recent listing of the polar bear, but the U.S. Department of the Interior set forth a rule earlier this month to prevent that interpretation of the act.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, Pat Parenteau of the Vermont Law School, and Craig Rieben of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Jacob Leibenluft is a writer from Washington, D.C.

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