The number of penguins arriving on Middle Island fell to the lowest level in 13 years last season, but there are signs the Warrnambool colony is starting to recover after the fox massacre in 2017.
The population was decimated when 70 penguins were killed in 2017, and in June this year foxes killed another eight breeding penguins who'd made an early arrival on the island.
Before the massacre, there was about 250 penguins on the island - 180 of them breeding penguins - but two years later and the colony is still less than half with about 100 penguins on the island, just 50 of them breeders.
While the breeding season after the massacre saw about 63 penguins arrive on the island, there was no evidence of any breeding that summer.
In the 2018-19 season, there were only 50 penguins sighted - the lowest since 2005/6 - but there were about 25 breeding pairs and 10 chicks seen on the island, according to a report presented to Monday's council meeting.
Penguin volunteer coordinator Trish Corbett said the early arrival of a handful of penguins in June this year was a "huge game changer" for the project with the timing of their annual return "unpredictable" at the moment
Penguins - which usually arrive in October and stay until late February or early March - have failed to show this season, apart from the eight that were killed when they arrived early in June.
"If they don't start arriving by the end of the month then we'd be concerned," Dr Corbett said.
With the shearwater birds arriving late in Port Fairy this year, she said she was hoping it was the same story with the penguins.
Dr Corbett said the deaths of eight male penguins in June potentially meant the colony had lost a third of its breeding males.
She said it would take a while "unfortunately" for the penguin colony numbers to increase because it takes three years before males can breed and two years for females.
"The season straight after the kill, sitting up on top of the boardwalk you couldn't hear any penguins," she said.
"Last season you could hear them talking to each other and partners meeting up, chicks calling out to the adults.
"Fingers crossed that we can have the same thing this season and that we haven't lost too many of our breeders again."
Ms Corbett said that when penguins started arriving earlier than expected at a time when it was dangerous to get to the island, it was hard to "catch the moment" before foxes get there.
"Really the maremma dogs are the last line of defense," she said.
"We're getting more and more urban foxes. They're more bold, they're very smart, they're taking risks. The foxes are actually swimming."
The Meet the Maremma Experience tours have helped fund the project to keep the dogs on the island to protect the penguins, and last year it pulled in $29,000.
Almost 2500 people participated in the 101 tours that were run last summer. Tours will run again over the Christmas holidays.
"We're still seeing a bit of the Oddball effect, but we're also getting people who are looking for those ecotourism, environmental activities," Dr Corbett said.
There are plans to get a vehicle to transport the dogs safely to and from the island, with volunteers currently using their own cars.
The Department of Environment Land Water and Planning has also conducted an external review into the sustainability of the project and a report is expected to be soon considered by the council.
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