Zoologists calls for beach closures to help protect the yellow-eyed penguins

Zoologists from Otago University are calling for beach closures to help protect endangered yellow-eyed penguins.

The hoiho (yellow-eyed penguin) is New Zealand's current Bird of the Year, but with numbers in sharp decline it could become extinct if nothing is done.

University of Otago research shows that chicks are more likely to survive when beaches are closed to the public during the breeding season.

Dunedin's Sandfly Bay is open to the public all year round, while neighbouring Boulder Beach is closed during the penguin breeding season.

"What we found was that the survival of chicks at this beach - where there wasn't a closure - has declined, whereas the survival of chicks at the beach where there was a closure has stayed constant," Professor Yolanda van Heezik said.

The hoiho is thought to be one of the world's rarest penguin species, with around 4000 to 5000 mature individuals in 2019, according to the Department of Conservation (DoC).

When people enter nesting areas or linger on beaches where hoiho come ashore, it may disturb and stress resting penguins, according to the DoC website.

This may mean adult penguins cannot readily feed their chicks, affecting their weight or even reduce survival rates.

"If there's anyone on the beach within hundreds of metres, then they're not going to want to come out of the water, or move across the beach to get back to their nest to feed their chicks," says Prof van Heezik.

DoC volunteers patrol the remote beaches between October and April.

Penguin volunteer Graeme Boyes says it is important to make sure visitors don't get too close and heed the warning signs.

"Just one dog can wipe out our colony of penguins in one go. So the signs are here, very large and clear," he says.

There are just 300 hoiho left along the Otago coastline, and if trends continue, they could be wiped out within 40 years.

"We'd like to think that in the future that it actually had the opportunity to perhaps be Bird of the Year again.. rather than just going extinct," says Prof van Heezik.