Discarded face masks are putting Phillip Island’s beloved penguins and other wildlife at risk of entanglement, with rangers collecting hundreds of masks from the island’s reserves and beaches.
Almost 230 face masks were found by rangers in January alone. One little penguin was found using a disposable mask in its burrow for nesting material, a raven was spotted with a mask caught around its foot and a swamphen had to be intercepted running back to its nest carrying a cloth mask.
No little penguins have yet been found harmed or tangled up in a mask, but Phillip Island Nature Parks rangers say they can only monitor about 5 per cent of the colony’s 40,000 penguins. Phillip Island is the largest little penguin colony in the world.
Paula Wasiak, a research technical officer at Phillip Island Nature Parks, said rangers had noticed discarded masks among litter since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this had increased over summer as more people ventured out from their homes.
While entanglement was the primary concern, petrochemicals leaching from masks and plastics disintegrating in the ocean were also a risk to wildlife, Ms Wasiak said.
“It’s so easy for a bird to become entangled in a mask but difficult for them to escape … penguins don’t have that reach to be able to remove it if they become caught,” she said.
“It was fortunate that the penguin we found with a mask in its burrow was being monitored as part of a study site, so we could remove it. But, sadly, we won’t always be so lucky.”
While many masks were found near the visitor centre, having been dropped or blown away, some washed up on beaches the public could not access, a sign they’d spread widely.
Ms Wasiak regularly visits a relatively remote beach about one kilometre from the Nobbies Reserve to collect plastic pollution, and has found a couple of plastic visors and multiple masks on the shoreline since the pandemic began.
Plastic pollution including discarded fishing line has long been found by rangers around the sensitive penguin colony, but the masks were particularly noticeable, she said.
She urged the public to cut the loops on any masks they throw away to prevent them harming wildlife.
If masks are in the ocean they are likely too big for little penguins to ingest, but there have been media reports of a Magellanic penguin in Brazil found dead with a mask in its stomach.
Last year the little penguins on Phillip Island had a breeding boom, with about 24,000 chicks hatching in the summer season.
This year’s final breeding count is not finished yet but the numbers are looking average, with about 20,000 chicks born. The total colony count is about 40,000, with 4000 birds recently recorded in a single night at the penguin parade.
Because of global warming, the East Australian Current – the largest ocean current close to the shores of the continent – is getting warmer.
Although it doesn’t enter the shallow Bass Strait, it still has a heating effect, and the water temperature in the strait is increasing.
But as the strait continues to warm, fish species will move to cooler water and penguins will have to travel further for food.