Only two Adélie penguin chicks survived a catastrophic breeding season for a colony of 36,000 birds after thousands starved to death, experts have said.
Unusually extensive sea ice late in the summer combined with low ice early in the season meant adult birds in the Terre Adélie colony in East Antarctica had to travel further for food.
In the wake of the "devastating" event, conservation group WWF is calling for the waters off East Antarctica to be a marine protected area to safeguard the penguins' main food source, krill.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), made up 25 member states and the EU, will consider a proposal for a new marine protected area for the waters off East Antarctica.
This is the second time the colony has suffered a breeding tragedy. Four years ago, no chicks survived after they froze to death when a drop in temperature followed a period of heavy sea ice, unusually warm weather and rain which had left the young saturated.
WWF say Adélie penguins, while generally faring well in East Antarctica, are declining in the Antarctic peninsula region where climate change is already established.
WWF has been supporting penguin research by French scientists working for the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in the region since 2010.
Rod Downie, head of polar programmes at WWF said: "Adélie penguins are one of the hardiest and most amazing animals on our planet.
"The risk of opening up this area to exploratory krill fisheries, which would compete with the Adélie penguins for food as they recover from two catastrophic breeding failures in four years, is unthinkable.
"So CCAMLR needs to act now by adopting a new Marine Protected Area for the waters off East Antarctica, to protect the home of the penguins."