Mounting opposition to WA government’s new Penguin Island tourist center as bird population dwindles

Plans for a new $3.3 million discovery center on Penguin Island, south of Perth, are on increasingly shaky ground amid concerns the center will do more harm than good for the island’s struggling penguin population.

The Western Australian government originally announced the plan last year as a way to bolster post-pandemic tourism in the area just off the coast of Rockingham.

It says sustaining the island’s dwindling population of little penguins is the priority.

But the City of Rockingham has joined activists in rejecting the construction of a new facility on the island, saying the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) had not provided enough evidence to show the penguins would not be affected.

“It will be disruptive, the penguins need to be able to get to the water,” Rockingham Mayor Deb Hamblin said.

“And you can imagine that even the noise of construction would have a sort of debilitating impact on them.

Ms Hamblin said there were also concerns the penguins’ crucial nesting and moulting activities would be disrupted by construction.

The new center is intended to replace the relatively modest Penguin Island Discovery Center which was built in 1995, offering tourists the opportunity to view the birds up close.

Penguin numbers down 80 per cent: Study

Councillors voted unanimously to delay the plan and investigate other options, such as building the center on the mainland to avoid disrupting the already fragile island population of penguins.

Eve Pattiselanno holds a sign calling for the protection of the little penguins.(Supplied: Save Rockingham’s Little Penguins)

Murdoch University research found the number of penguins on the island had dropped by about 80 percent, from a peak of around 1,700 birds in 2007, to around 300 in 2020.

There were around 500 penguins on the island when the existing discovery center was built, according to the DBCA.

Penguin Island, about 600 meters from the Shoalwater coast, has long been a popular destination for snorkellers, kayakers and day-trippers hoping to catch a glimpse of the flightless birds.

The plan to replace the existing penguin discovery center on the island was an election commitment made by the McGowan government in February 2021.

It promised to “improve tourism facilities” on Penguin Island as part of a $217 million package to “support WA tourism businesses and local jobs” during pandemic recovery.

The City of Rockingham initially supported the plan, but last week revoked its approval following a backlash against the concept designs released by Environment Minister Reece Whitby on Facebook in February.

Minister says designs minimize disturbance to penguins

Mr Whitby claimed the designs would improve penguin habitat.

“The penguins are facing a number of critical and linked challenges — climate change, marine heatwaves and a scarcity of food,” he said.

“I want to make sure we are doing everything possible to support the local population at Penguin Island.”

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