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The plight of Otago's yellow-eyed penguins highlights the need for a greater understanding of the changes in ocean conditions, Department of Conservation director-general Lou Sanson says.
Many yellow-eyed chicks born along Otago's coast this summer have died or are starving, forcing many to be removed from the coast to ''hospitals'' to be supplementary fed.
Concerns about the impact on the endangered penguin population led the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust to call for urgent conservation research to ensure the continued survival of the penguin on Otago's coastline.
Mr Sanson, who was in Dunedin yesterday to talk to Doc staff and visit Orokonui Ecosanctuary, said it was important to understand what was happening in the southern oceans and how it related in particular to how ''our birds use the ocean''.
As well as the problems faced by the yellow-eyed penguins, the population of rockhopper penguins on the Campbell Islands had collapsed and albatross were struggling with food stocks. The oceanic currents around the Auckland Islands were changing massively, he said. There was a ''fire hose'' of warm water from the Tasman Sea being pushed against the Antarctic ice shelf.
''That means there is a big pulse of water going right past Otago Peninsula.''
So it was possible one of the biggest impacts on the penguins was the changes going on in the oceans. However, not enough was known yet, which was why Doc supported the Government's national science challenges as they aimed to understand the changes, he said.
''We need to understand what the changes in the ocean currents cause and the impact on the food stock.''
Also to be understood was the changing climate, such as the impact of the unsettled summer New Zealand had experienced this year, Mr Sanson said.
National science challenges directed funding towards bringing the country's top scientists together to work collaboratively across disciplines to make an impact on each area. One of theses areas was understanding the role of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean in determining New Zealand's climate and future environment.
After hearing of the work Penguin Place was doing to help yellow-eyed penguins, the Dunedin Motel Association was donating $1000 towards the tourist operators penguin ''hospital''. Penguin Place manager Lisa King said she was grateful for the help and it would be put to good use over the coming months.