The British Government announced on Tuesday an ambitious plan at enhancing environmental protection of the world’s oceans and the Antarctic and including the designation of the world first “high seas” marine protected area south of the South Orkney Islands (once a Falklands dependency).
The other measures refer to a consultation on enhanced environmental protection for Antarctica and a consultation that could see the British India n Ocean Territory become one of the world’s largest marine reserves.
The South Orkneys Marine Protected Area (MPA) would be the world’s first ‘high seas’ marine protected area covering a large area of the Southern Ocean in the British Antarctic Territory, south of the South Orkney Islands. The UK proposal was successful at last week’s 25-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), held in Tasmania. The South Orkneys MPA will come into force in May 2010 (180 days after the adoption date).
The marine protected area, the result of four years of development work, is just less than 94,000 square kilometres, which is more than four times the size of Wales. No fishing activities and no discharge or refuse disposal from fishing vessels will be allowed in the area, which will allow scientists to better monitor the effects of human activities and climate change on the Southern Ocean.
“I am delighted that the UK is leading the world in recognizing the need to protect and conserve our oceans. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources has again been able to show that it is a world leader in marine conservation. Climatic changes are having a serious effect on the Southern Ocean and it is vital that we take this first step towards the development of a network of marine protection across all of the world’s oceans” said FCO Minister Chris Bryant FCO, who is leading the Antarctic consultation.
Drs Phil Trathan and Susie Grant from the British Antarctic Survey led on the scientific work which underpinned the proposal for the MPA. Dr Trathan said: “The South Orkneys MPA is the first link in a network that will better conserve marine biodiversity in the Antarctic. It will help conserve important ecosystem processes, vulnerable areas, and create reference sites that can be used to make scientific comparisons between fished areas and no-take areas. Such networks will become increasingly important as climate change impacts become increasingly evident in the future.”
The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), also known as the Chagos Archipelago, includes a quarter of a million square miles of some of the most unspoilt, natural marine areas in the world. In their near pristine state, the islands remain a vital habitat to many forms of marine life as well as an important research site for marine biologists who are working to combat global climate change.
British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, launching a consultation on the possibility of making BIOT one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas (MPA), said: “This is a remarkable opportunity for Britain to create one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, and to double the global coverage of the world’s oceans that benefit from full protection. It also demonstrates this Government's commitment to protecting the global environment and halting biodiversity loss.”
Dr Charles Sheppard, BIOT Scientific Adviser said: “Very few areas of the world’s oceans are in a condition remotely like their natural condition: Chagos is one of them, and if made a refuge for species and habitats it can provide a guide to many other conservation efforts around the world.”
The consultation asks for views on whether BIOT should become an MPA, the options around making BIOT a partial or full ‘no-take’ fishing zone, and on what other measures should be taken to protect the environment in BIOT. Responses to the consultation will form the basis of a report which will be written and presented to the Foreign Secretary who will then decide on the next steps.
The British government also published a draft Antarctic bill which aims to enhance the protection of this unique and unspoilt wilderness. The bill seeks to strengthen measures to ensure that all British activities in Antarctica will be carried out with strict regard for the environment and includes additional protection for the Antarctic marine environment.
The bill would implement into UK legislation an internationally agreed framework for the recovery of costs of cleaning up any environmental damage which occurs in Antarctica. It will also enhance the safety and search and rescue requirements for expeditions to Antarctica.
“The UK has been at the forefront of Antarctic science and exploration and has played a leading role in the Antarctic Treaty System, which the UK was the first to sign 50 years ago. This draft Bill implements our international commitments and provides for the continued protection of the continent into the future. It ensures that British activities in Antarctica will be carried out safely and that environmental risks are minimised” said Chris Bryant.
(*) The South Orkney Islands have been part of the British Antarctic Territory since 1962, and prior to this the islands were a Falkland Islands Dependency. Under the 1959 Antarctic Treaty however, the Islands' sovereignty is neither recognized nor disputed by the signatories and they are free for use by any signatory for non-military use.
Therefore, there is an overlap of jurisdiction, since the islands are also part of Argentina’s province of Tierra del Fuego, and the Argentine Navy has maintained a permanent base there since 1904 and calls the Islands, Orcadas.
The South Orkney Islands were discovered in 1821 by two sealers, Nathaniel Brown Palmer and and George Powell. The Islands were originally named Powell's Group, with the main island named Coronation Island as it was the year of the coronation of King George IV. In 1823, James Weddell visited the Islands, gave the archipelago its present name (after the Orkney Islands, Scotland) and also renamed some of the islands. Interestingly, the South Orkney Islands are located at roughly the same latitude south as the Orkney Islands are north (60°S vs 59°N), although it is not known if this was a factor behind the naming of the islands.
Subsequently, the Islands were frequently visited by sealers and whalers, but no thorough survey was ever done until the expedition of William Speirs Bruce on the Scotia in 1903, which over-wintered at Laurie Island. Bruce surveyed the islands, reverted some of Weddell's name changes, and established a meteorological station, which was sold to the Argentine Government upon his departure in 1904. This base, renamed Orcadas in 1951, is still in operation today and is thus the oldest research station continuously staffed in the Antarctic.
In 1908, the UK declared sovereignty over all Antarctic and South American territories south of their colony in the 50° parallel, including the South Orkney Islands. The Islands were then regarded to be part of the Falkland Islands Dependency. A biological research station on Signy Island was built in 1947 by BAS.
The marine protected area for the South Orkneys includes important sections of an oceanographic feature known as the Weddell Front, which marks the northern limit of waters characteristic of the Weddell Sea and the southern limit of the Weddell Scotia Confluence. The Weddell Scotia Confluence is a key habitat for Antarctic krill, one of the main species harvested in the Antarctic and a key focus for CCAMLR. The MPA also includes important foraging areas for Adélie penguins that breed at the South Orkney Islands, and important submarine shelf areas and seamounts, including areas that have recently been shown to have high biodiversity.