HC 846 Sustainability in the Overseas Territories

Written evidence submitted by the British Antarctic Survey

Summary: The focus of this submission conccerns the biodiversity, the marine protected areas, and the fisheries management of two Overseas Territories, namely South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) and the British Antarctic Territory (BAT). There are very brief comments on minerals. The British Antarctic Survey is a component part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), and this submission complements theirs.


1. A significant part of the South Atlantic Ocean lies within BAT and SGSSI. These OTs include areas where levels of benthic biodiversity are greater than those in the Galapagos, often cited as an example of high biodiversity. BAT and SGSSI are areas of seabird biodiversity, including globally-important populations of both albatrosses and penguins.

2. The air temperature of the Antarctic Peninsula, which is largely encapsulated within BAT, has risen by 3o C in 50 years; this warming is greater than any other region in the Southern Hemisphere. The impacts are significant. In the last 50 years, nine major iceshelves have broken up, 87% of glaciers are in retreat contributing significantly to sea level rise, and winter sea ice extent has decreased by 10% per decade. Many animals rely on the algae under and in sea ice as a winter food source.

3. The populations of krill around South Georgia appear to have fallen by an order of magnitude in the last three decades, and this has been attributed to major reductions in sea ice.

4. The marine animals in BAT and SGSSI have evolved over many millions of years in a near-isothermal environment. The oceans have warmed significantly in the last 50 years and this is a potential threat to the fragile ecosystems in which the animals operate.

5. A further pressure comes from the increasing acidity of the ocean, arising from the absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the ocean (ocean acidification); the rising CO2 levels arise from the increased burning of fossil fuels.

6. Icebergs scour the benthic communities, and the frequency of these events appears to be increasing as a result of the warming of the Antarctic Peninsula. The recovery time of the communities is sufficiently long that there are concerns that there may be irrevocable damage in some areas.

7. The Antarctic Treaty covers the area below 60°S latitude. It has been signed by 50 nations representing over 80% of the world population. Under the Treaty, further Conventions and Protocols have been developed to address the issues of Antarctic resources and protection of the Antarctic environment.

8. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was agreed in 1980. It aims to conserve all Antarctic marine living resources south of the polar front, the boundary between cold Antarctic seas and the warmer waters of the Atlantic, and thus includes both BAT and CCAMLR.  Also of note, is the Environmental Protocol, which came into force in 1998 and establishes a framework for the comprehensive protection of Antarctica, including:

a. A complete ban on all commercial mining;

b. A mechanism to ensure that the environmental impact of all activities undertaken in Antarctica is considered and mitigated as far as practicable;

c. Comprehensive protection of Antarctic plants and animals;

d. Stringent waste management procedures;

e. Prevention of marine pollution;

f. A system to protect the most sensitive and scientifically important areas of Antarctica.

9. British Antarctic Survey (BAS), in close collaboration with the Polar Regions Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ensures the requirements of the Treaty are successfully delivered.

Fisheries management

10. The Southern Ocean, and particularly the South Atlantic sector, contains one of the last under-exploited sources of marine protein, Antarctic krill. If the potential allowable catch were to be taken, it would equate to approximately 7% of current landings from marine capture fisheries reported to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

11. Recent technological developments now enable krill to be harvested more economically, and new markets are now driving increased catches. The krill are used primarily for feeding aquaculture fish and for nutraceuticals.

12. CCAMLR, the fisheries management organisation for the Southern Ocean, regulates the multi-national exploitation of krill. The challenge is to do this without damaging the Antarctic marine ecosystem when the impacts of fishing and climate change are both increasing. CCAMLR adopts a precautionary principles based on estimates of krill biomass.

13. BAS scientists support the UK Government in the negotiations over the fisheries management, and carry out front-line research to understand the marine ecosystem.


14. Albatrosses are regarded by many as iconic species and thus of cultural value, but their numbers are in serious decline. One of the impacts of long line fishing is the incident mortality of birds (by-catch). Typically a long liner deploys ~10000 baited hooks during a single long line haul. This attracts birds, such as albatrosses and petrels, and over the years thousands of birds have been caught and drowned.

15. Conservationists and scientists have been working with the fishing industry to reduce the deaths. Measures include having streamers behind the fishing boats to prevent birds getting close to the hooks before they sink out of range of the birds’ diving capabilities. These measures have meant that the by-catch of birds in the South Georgia area fell from ~6000 per annum in the late 1990s to none since 2006.

16. Albatrosses are still on the decline, currently at an unsustainable rate of 4% per annum for the wandering albatrosses. Research shows that birds are breeding just as successfully as previously but the returns of birds to breed are falling. New tracking technology, developed by BAS, allows scientists to show that albatrosses often go to South American and South African waters to feed; in these locations the same by-catch mitigation measures have not been fully implemented, and young birds are particularly vulnerable to being caught on the hooks or killed by contact with the fishing warps.

17. In 2009, CCAMLR established the South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf as its first Marine Protected Areas (MPA), and the first such area anywhere in the world to be designated entirely within the High Seas. The agreement of this MPA was of major significance in establishing a large area for the conservation of marine biodiversity.

18. The fundamental objectives of the MPA are to :

· protect rare or vulnerable benthic and pelagic habitats

· protect areas of ecosystem importance

· protect trophically important pelagic prey species

· protect areas important for key life cycle stages and processes for commercially important species

· promote recovery of the marine ecosystem following historical harvesting

· maximise ecosystem robustness and resilience to climate variability and change

19. There is still additional scientific evidence required to determine more robustly if the scale size of MPAs is well matched to the size at which ecosystems operate.

20. BAS scientists led the development of proposals to build the case for protection, and provided scientific and policy advice at every stage of review and stakeholder consultation through to political implementation. BAS continues to undertake field studies to understand more completely the MPA.

21. In February 2012, the entire Maritime Zone (north of 60°S) surrounding SGSSI was declared as a sustainably managed MPA, making it the largest such protected area in the world. BAS provided scientific advice on the initial declaration. The scientific justification for the MPA was founded on the results of an interdisciplinary suite of research, including biological studies and monitoring of land-based predators, fisheries biology and surveys, as well as physical oceanography, benthic surveys and remotely-sensed data.

22. BAS has recently completed a 2-year project to identify a range of sites to be proposed for additional protection as "no-take zones" within the MPA. Stakeholder consultation on the implementation of these new zones has just been completed, and their future ratification will help to support the sustainable development of fisheries for Patagonian toothfish and Antarctic krill in SGSSI waters.

23. BAS scientists are also leading a proposal to implement precautionary protection for marine habitats under ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula region, with the aim of providing scientific reference areas to facilitate studies of how ecosystems change following ice shelf collapse or retreat. It is hoped that this measure will be agreed by CCAMLR in 2013..

Physiological research

24. Fundamental research is being carried out at BAS to determine both the physiological and genetic responses of animals both to the long term warming of the ocean and to the impacts of ocean acidification. This is essential to allow insight into how ecosystems might evolve in the very rapidly chaning environments.

Terrestrial environment

25. The warming environment increases the threat from invasive species. There are many methods by which aliens species can reach BAT and SGSSI. In the past, there are been transfer of species by humans intentionally as was the case with reindeer and some plants on South Georgia, and unintentionally with rats on South Georgia. Eridication is now being undertaken.

26. There are many scientists and over 30,000 tourists visiting Antarctica every summer; many land on the Antarctic Peninsula. Most scientists and tourists take great care in cleaning clothing and materials brought to Antarctic to minimise the risk of invasion. Research during the International Polar Year demonstrated that, despite the cleaning, seeds were being transferred into the Antarctic.

Economic opportunities

27. The fisheries are a major source of income for the Government of SGSSI.

28. South Georgia and the surrounding seas are products of relatively recent geological processes with historic volcanic eruptions in the South Sandwich Islands. In contrast to most other OTs, survey data sets for resource analysis and to underpin regulation of mineral resources and sustainable development in SGSSI territory are either lacking or partial. The lack of data is a result of remote location, access difficulties and extensive ice cover on land. Potential future resource development in SGSSI may include on-shore and sea-floor minerals activity and geothermal exploitation. There is as yet inadequate data and research to underpin regulation and sustainable development in the territory.

29. Mineral resource activity in BAT is regulated by the Antarctic Act 1994 and is restricted to scientific research under permit. Geological knowledge in BAT is highly variable; some areas are well understood with high quality data contrasting with other, less accessible areas that are poorly understood.

Future requirements

30. Much has been achieved to protect the biodiversity of the BAT and SGSSI with establishment of protected areas and through the attempts to prevent the transfer of alien species from other locations. The fishery management system has operated successfully for over 30 years but is coming under increasing pressure both through commercial exploitation and the effects of climate change.

31. There is still much to be understood about the ecosystems of BAT and SGSSI before robust predictions can be made, and this requires fundamental research at all levels from the gene to the ecosystem, and much more sophisticated modelling.

32. All the research and the successes to date have been underpinned by long term measurements. It is essential for these to continue.

Annex: The British Antarctic Survey

33. Antarctic Survey (BAS) is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). BAS supports stations in the Antarctic and on South Georgia, five planes and two ice-strengthened ships which are used both for research and for science.

34. Within BAT, BAS operates three stations. Rothera station (67°S; 68° W) has sophisticated biological laboratory facilities incorporating a cold water marine aquarium and a diving facility. At Signy Island (60°S; 46°W), a summer only research station, penguin, seabird and seal biology, limnology and terrestrial biology are undertaken. At Halley (76°S; 27°W) the science focus is on atmospheric research from the ground to space.

35. Within SGSSI, BAS operates two research stations, at Bird Island, South Georgia (54°S, 38°W) where the focus is on seabird and seal research, and King Edward Point, South Georgia (54°S, 36W), where applied fisheries research is carried out.

36. All these research facilities are used to support the research of BAS and the UK Universities, and frequently there are international collaborative research programmes undertaken.

4 December 2012

Prepared 14th January 2013