The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has officially designated Antarctica's emperor penguins as a "threatened" species, saying climate change has had a "profound impact" on the birds.
"This listing reflects the growing extinction crisis," Martha Williams, the federal wildlife agency's director, said in a statement on Wednesday. "Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world and addressing it is a priority for the Administration."
She continued, "The listing of the emperor penguin serves as an alarm bell but also a call to action."
The flightless species is now protected under the Endangered Species Act, 11 years after The Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned the agency to protect the Emperor penguin, according to The Washington Post.
In a study last year, conservation officials forecasted that the penguins and their colonies could become "quasi-extinct."
As many as 650,000 emperor penguins are living in Antarctica, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported last year, and experts think that number could shrink by 26% to 47% by 2050.
The wildlife agency first floated the idea of protecting the penguins in 2021, issuing a statement citing melting sea ice as the prime culprit for the species' diminishing numbers.
"The estimated decrease in population size is not equal across Antarctica," the agency shared in 2021. "The Ross and Weddell Seas are strongholds for the species, and populations in these areas will most likely remain stable. However, emperor penguin colonies within the Indian Ocean, Western Pacific Ocean, and Bellingshausen Sea and Amundsen Sea sectors are projected to decline by over 90 percent due to melting sea ice."
It concluded, "While this estimated decline is concerning, the proposal to list the emperor penguin as threatened under the ESA comes while there is still time to prevent the species from becoming endangered throughout a significant portion of its range."
With the Emperor penguin's new Endangered Species Act protection, conservationists now hope that U.S. officials will begin to limit krill fishing around the continent and weigh the climate implications of federal projects before approving them, the Post reported.
"If we manage to take action, and especially action now," scientist Stephanie Jenouvrier told the outlet, "we can still avoid the extinction."