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Volunteers call for help to protect St Kilda penguin colony

It’s snapper season, she says, which means every night fishers are brazenly risking a $330 fine. (While the public is permitted to fish from St Kilda Pier and the pathway and boardwalk within the penguin viewing area, signs warn public access to the rocks is prohibited.)

But this is routinely ignored by fishers who jam their fishing lines into the rock crevices, potentially crushing chicks in burrows, and block penguins returning after a long day fishing in Port Phillip Bay.

“We try to ask them to leave but if they choose not to there is nothing we can do, we have to suck it up,” Ms Stevenson says.

On Tuesday night, fishers became abusive and threatened to smash the phones of volunteer guides who photographed them.

Earthcare St Kilda volunteer Leanne Stevenson asking a fisherman to leave the area.

Earthcare St Kilda volunteer Leanne Stevenson asking a fisherman to leave the area.Credit:Simon Schluter

Volunteer team leader Andrew Falbo say Parks Victoria rangers, who do have the authority to issue fines, only show up “every blue moon”.

The volunteers have had to become crowd controllers: “There are so many people the penguins can’t cross the pier, so we have to hold people back.”

Some tourists flout rules prohibiting the use of flash photography and torches.

Litter is another problem – little penguins are foragers and Earthcare volunteers have been aghast to find their burrows lined with plastic fishing lures and cigarette butts.

“Things are becoming more uncontrolled … it’s getting a bit beyond what volunteers can handle,” Ms Stevenson says. “We feel Parks Victoria are not providing enough support.”

A penguin next to a fishing line at St Kilda.

A penguin next to a fishing line at St Kilda.Credit:Heather Little

Parks Victoria says it is aware of reports of members of the public accessing restricted areas of the St Kilda Breakwater that are in place to protect the welfare of the penguin colony and for visitor safety.

“More ranger patrols will be commencing early November, with a focus on educating visitors and risk reduction to the colony,” a spokesperson says.

But some question if this is enough.

Little penguins, the smallest species of penguin in the world, are found on the coastlines of southern Australia and New Zealand.

The St Kilda colony started a couple of decades after the St Kilda breakwater was built to moor yachts during the 1956 Olympics.

“The first pair was spotted in 1974. We think they swam across from Phillip Island,” Ms Stevenson says.

The colony has thrived and there are now an estimated 1400 penguins.

The St Kilda penguin colony has become a popular tourist destination.

The St Kilda penguin colony has become a popular tourist destination.Credit:Simon Schluter

Port Phillip mayor Dick Gross believes it may be time to charge a small fee to see the penguins to help protect them.

“The genie is out of the bottle … without a price the summer crowds will go through the roof,” he says.

“You just can’t rely on the long-suffering Earthcare volunteers. Parks Victoria needs to have a quantum shift in their thinking, they need to get off their posteriors.”

Cr Gross points to Phillip Island, home of the world-famous penguin parade, where the state government bought property on the Summerland Peninsula to protect the penguins and built a multimillion-dollar visitor centre.

“Some of this investment may need to occur with the St Kilda penguins,” Cr Gross says. “These beautiful creatures are an attribute to the community – you can’t ignore visitation, dollars and the clear fun they bring.”

Fishers on the end of St Kilda pier.

Fishers on the end of St Kilda pier.Credit:Simon Schluter

The state government allocated $50.3 million in the budget to rebuild St Kilda Pier to boost tourism and protect the penguin colony.

The curved pier will include a penguin viewing area with tiered seating providing access to the water, new toilets, and sheltered areas.

Local MP Martin Foley said that while the rebuild would be critical for the long-term management of the issue, Parks Victoria and the volunteer groups needed to have a better protocol in the meantime that put the interests of the penguins first.

“I have asked Parks Victoria to convene the first of the community reference groups  for the design and delivery of the new pier and visiting facilities before the end of 2019,” he said.

Earthcare St Kilda has asked Parks Victoria to ban fishing from the penguin viewing area, introduce measures to separate people from the penguins, close the penguin viewing area after 10.30pm, provide bins, increase ranger patrols and limit bus tours.

“All anybody wants is for these defenceless little penguins to be safe and feel safe,” says Mr Falbo.

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