The UK is planning a huge marine protection zone near the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, in an area that is also claimed by Argentina, a British official said on Wednesday.
The Times newspaper reported that the zone measuring one million square kilometres will be around the island of South Georgia, where the Falklands war began nearly 30 years ago, and the South Sandwich Islands.
A British official speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the details in The Times and said a formal announcement was due in the coming days by the government of South Georgia.
We are planning a marine protection area. There's no real secret about it, we have talked to the stakeholders and discussed it with the fishing industry the official said. These are UK waters that are under discussion.
The marine zone would allow authorities to ban the slaughter of whales and other wildlife, while fishing would only be permitted in designated areas, the Times said. It is a habitat for penguins, walruses and Patagonian toothfish, it added.
The Foreign Office in London said any announcement on the subject would be made by the government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, but said it would back such a marine zone.
We would support moves which preserve the rich biodiversity of the Islands, which is a habitat for seven species of globally threatened seabirds, a Foreign Office spokesman said in an emailed statement.
”The UK has no doubt about the sovereignty over the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (and the Falklands)”.
A Whitehall source explained that “Argentina, like the United Kingdom, is a signatory of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources so we would like to think that common interest in conservation will carry more weight than the dispute over sovereignty.”
The move has already triggered a backlash from Argentina as Ruperto Godoy, member of the Lower House's Argentine Foreign Relations committee, came on stage and told The Times reporters that “South Georgia Island is an integral part of our national territory”, and added, “The UK must obey international law and return them to Argentina peacefully.”
Plans for the zone come after Argentina intensified its claims of sovereignty over the South Atlantic Islands, particularly the Falkland Islands by challenging Spanish fishing vessels with Falklands’ government licences for “illegally fishing in Argentine waters” and on suspicion of breaking Argentina’s “blockade” of the seas around the Islands.
South Georgia was occupied by invading Argentine forces in April 1982 when the South Atlantic conflict, but the British Task Force recaptured them on 25 April. In 1985South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands ceased to be administered as a Falkland Islands Dependency and became a separate British Overseas Territory.
The King Edward Point base, which had become a small military garrison after the Falklands’ conflict was returned to civilian use in 2001 and is now operated by the British Antarctic Survey.
Plans to make the South Georgia area a huge marine protection zone were already mentioned at the time but were kept in the freezer to avoid further disputes with the UK.