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.
Penguin numbers on the island near Rockingham have dropped by 80 per cent since 2007, with only 200-300 birds left
WA’s Environment Minister, Reece Whitby, last month released concept plans for a new tourist centre, which was first promised by the government in 2021
The City of Rockingham has joined local activists in opposing the plan, saying more research is needed to assess the impact on penguins
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.
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.”
He said the new discovery center would provide an additional 500 square meters of habitat for penguins and nesting seabirds, and would be constructed using raised decks to provide a cooler habitat and nesting areas.
“Every effort is being made to minimize the disturbance to penguins and penguin habitat during the construction, with guidance from scientists and technical experts,” Mr Whitby said.
He said construction would be restricted to the summer months — when the penguins typically spend several weeks at sea feeding — and completed before the penguins returned to the island to breed in April.
The ‘Save Rockingham’s Little Penguins’ campaign has started a petition to build the new penguin center on the mainland rather than the island, with around 1,600 signatures so far.
“The announcement [of the concept plans] came out of the blue for our concerned community of little penguin lovers who are worried the new center could be the nail in the coffin for this already devastated colony,” campaign leader Dawn Jecks said.
The nearby City of Kwinana also voted last month to write to the minister requesting construction to be delayed while more research was completed.
A state government spokesperson told the ABC consultation about the project was ongoing with advice from scientists and researchers.
“There is an ongoing process of widespread consultation with the interest of the penguins and the future sustainability of the population being the primary consideration of all participants,” the spokesperson said.
“Consultation on the best way forward to protect the island’s penguin population is continuing and involves an already established little penguin working group consisting of researchers and experts in the field.”
But Rockingham Mayor Deb Hamblin said it was her understanding of the concept designs had been greenlit for construction.
“They’ve costed it, they’ve got the location, they had all the planning, they’ve got all the drawings,” said Ms Hamblin.