Plans for discovery centre on WA island dropped to protect little penguins

Plans for discovery centre on WA island dropped to protect little penguins

The Western Australian government has abandoned plans for a $3.3m “discovery centre” on Penguin Island following a community campaign against the development.

Reece Whitby, the minister for environment and climate action, made the announcement on Friday, saying in a statement that following a scientific review and community consultation, the proposed centre would be shifted to the mainland.

“The health and welfare of the little penguins is our number-one priority when considering how best to plan for the future of Penguin Island,” Whitby said.

“I understand the decision will disappoint some and reduce the number of days that people can visit the island, but I believe the community will support measures to protect this vulnerable population of penguins, which are being impacted by a changing climate.”

To help the threatened population of Penguin Island recover, Whitby said visits will be limited during periods of high temperatures and existing seasonal closures would be extended by four weeks.

Whitby also allocated $250,000 to investigate moving the centre to the mainland and $150,000 to support additional research.

The original design for the environment centre was unveiled in February and would have included a sprinkler system below a deck that planners said would help cool sheltering penguins during future heatwaves.

This design was contested by conservationists and scientists, who said the additional noise and foot traffic would place further stress on the population.

Dr Erin Clitheroe, who did her PhD on the Penguin Island colony, said the decision was “fantastic” and showed Whitby “is clearly dedicated to supporting this population and the environment”.

“The very fact that this build had the possibility of placing additional pressure – we’ve completely removed that pressure on the population. That’s only going to have a positive outcome and will support the population in recovering,” Clitheroe said. “To see this outcome is very encouraging for science as well.”

The little penguin population on the island is suffering from declining numbers and a horror breeding season, whereby half the chicks born in 2021 died, equating to roughly 10% of its overall population.

Dawn Jecks, a councillor at Rockingham city council and the organiser of the Save Rockingham’s Little Penguins campaign, said she was “delighted and relieved” by the news.

“We initially thought this was a done deal,” she said. ‘“It’s good to hear the local politicians are listening to the community. We’re really glad the minister himself has got across all the science and is taking it on board.”

Jecks said the campaign against the development – which she dubbed “Team Penguin” – had involved broad support from scientists, local tourism operators, the council and members of the community.

“I believe in my community. I trust their wise heads. They know the facts, they get the data from the scientists, they have a big heart. I knew they would step up. And they did,” she said.

This article by Royce Kurmelovs was first published by The Guardian on 26 August 2022. Lead Image: Plans for a centre on Western Australia’s Penguin Island have been shelved to protect the threatened little penguins. Photograph: Dr Joe Fontaine.

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