Nov. 28, 2006 — -- While a young emperor penguin named Mumble and his friends dance in animated joy rocking movie houses across the United States in the hit film "Happy Feet," many of their real life counterparts are struggling to stay alive, say scientists and environmental groups.
"These animals that have wiggled and tap danced their way into the hearts of people around the country are in serious trouble," Josh Reichert, director of the Environment Division of the Pew Charitable Trust, told ABC News.
Extensive over-fishing, human encroachment, and effects of global warming appear to be having a devastating cumulative effect on many penguins, say experts.
Of the world's 19 penguin species, 12 are now so threatened they need special protection, according to the wildlife advocacy group the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Center is filing a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list all 12 penguin species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
They include the world's largest penguin, the emperor, whose midwinter travails and incubation rituals also filled movie houses in the record-breaking documentary "March of the Penguins."
"The emperor colony in that movie has declined by about 50 percent over the past half-century," scientist Paul Ponganis told ABC.
Ponganis, who makes regular trips to study emperors in Antarctica from his base at San Diego's Scripps Oceanographic Institution, cautions that the colony is the only one out of about 40 emperor colonies with records going back that far, "so we don't know yet exactly how stressed the species as a whole is, but it's not a good sign."
Ponganis, who studies the emperors' remarkable ability to dive 1,640 feet in search of food and hold their breath for 20 minutes, reports that the 4-foot tall birds are threatened by commercial fishing and, almost certainly, by the long-range effects of global warming that is melting sea-ice.
"emperors breed and incubate their eggs in the middle of winter," he says, "because they do it all on the frozen sea surface."
If the sea-ice freezes too late in autumn or breaks up too early in spring, the chicks won't be old enough to swim, he explains, "so the long-term projections for global warming are a serious threat."
Early sea-ice break up in recent years is consistent with many projections of the effects of global warming, and scientists are not optimistic.
Climate scientists around the world agree that even in the best case scenarios, the earth is virtually certain to warm at least another two degrees Fahrenheit due to human-induced greenhouse gas emissions.
Emperors and other penguin species also need floating sea-ice to rest on during their long fishing forays.
Penguins, which are found only in the southern hemisphere, thus appear to face the same problem global warming has already brought to the north pole -- less and less frozen sea surface or "sea-ice" -- which polar bears, found only at the north end of the planet, must have to stand on as they hunt seals, their main food.
"'Happy Feet' ends on a note that implies the threat to the penguins has been fixed," says Reichert. "But it's not the reality -- it's getting worse."
"Happy Feet" features three penguin species -- not only emperors ("Mumble") but Adelies ("Ramon") and rockhoppers ("Lovelace"), says Reichert -- and ends with what appears to be a United Nations ban on fishing in Antarctica and plenty of food for all penguins.
The reality, he says, is that enormous catches of krill (tiny shrimp-like creatures) and other "forage fish" not eaten by humans are already being taken by large commercial fleets, robbing penguins of food, and there are expected to be much bigger catches to come.
"Krill are eaten by many penguins -- it's the main food of emperors -- as well as other animals including whales, seals and many seabirds," says Reichert. "We will soon see gigantic trawlers -- boats that can take 120,000 metric tons of krill in one season, as much krill as the entire international fleet in the southern oceans takes now."
Humans don't eat much krill -- directly, he says, although it is used in nutritional supplements. However, it has become an increasingly attractive food source for the burgeoning farmed fish industry known as aquaculture.
"The krill are ground up to feed to farmed salmon, and because krill are reddish in color, they are ideal for farm raised salmon because it gives their meat a natural red color," says Reichert.
Otherwise, he explains, fish farmers have to use red and pink dyes in fish food to produce the color buyers like.
"We are quite familiar with the Center for Biological Diversity," says Valerie Fellows of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, "They bring many petitions for endangered species."
Fellows says the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service cannot comment on the merits of the petition before they receive and study it, but a similar petition filed last year by the CBD and other environmental groups - seeking endangered status for Polar Bears - has passed a first stage of review toward gaining that status.
Courts have given the government a deadline of Dec. 27 to present its ultimate determination on polar bears.
CBD officers tell ABC News they believe the Endangered Species Act contains language that requires the government to act to prevent global warming when it can be shown the warming is harming an endangered species.
The CBD cites language in the act that prevents the federal government from carrying out, authorizing or funding any action that might "jeopardize the continued existence" of any listed species.
"When we get a species listed that is threatened by global warming," including polar bears and penguins, says the CBD'S Kassie Siegel, "we intend to bring a case under the Endangered Species Act against the government to act to curb greenhouse gases."