Antarctica’s biodiversity needs protection – experts respond

International agreements have designated Antarctica a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” —  but are we doing enough to to protect it?

File:Antarctica surface.jpgA team of Australian researchers are calling for Antarctic biodiversity to be better protected from biological invasions and human activity, saying the last untouched wilderness on Earth is at risk.

In a perspective article published in PLoS Biology, the authors argue that Antarctica is one of the planet’s least protected regions, with just 1.5% of the continent’s ice-free area formally designated as specially protected areas.

The authors say policy makers should aim to for Antarctica to meet Aichi Target 11 of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020 which calls for ”at least 17% of terrestrial and inland water areas” to be protected to ensure conservation of biodiversity. Antarctica is not currently included in the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

“Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one lives there, however we show that’s not true,” said lead author, Dr Justine Shaw of the University of Queensland.

“We need to establish protected areas that are representative of Antarctic biodiversity to protect a diverse suite of native insects, plants and seabirds, many of which occur nowhere else in the world. We also need to ensure that Antarctic protected areas are not going to be impacted by human activities, such as pollution, trampling or invasive species.”

The Science Media Centre collected the following expert commentary.

Professor Steve Pointing, Professor of Applied Ecology, AUT, comments:

“There is really no excuse for treaty signatories not making the commitment to meet the Aichi Targets goal of 17% protected land for Antarctica’s ice free regions. Despite a strong commitment to the ‘zero harm’ concept by many science and tourism operations, there will always be opportunity for negative impacts where land is not protected.

“I have years of experience leading research teams in Antarctica’s ice-free McMurdo Dry Valleys, the scenery alone is spectacular but to biologists like myself the endemic creatures we find there make it unique. I think the call for increased protected areas will gain huge traction among the science community. If treaty signatories cannot agree this then it will reflect very poorly on our stewardship of this continent.”

Dr Neil Gilbert, Environmental Consultant, Antarctica New Zealand, comments:

“All of Antarctica is afforded a very high level of protection. The (50) Antarctic Treaty Parties have committed themselves to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment through the provisions of the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty.  The Protocol also calls for a systematic network of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas to be designated to provide additional protection to Antarctica’s most important environments.

“This research paper highlights some important gaps in the current network of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas, confirming that Antarctica’s remoteness and existing biodiversity protection may be inadequate to provide the very highest standard of protection, as intended by the Protocol.  The analysis undertaken in the paper is thorough and we concur with its findings.  That less than 2% of Antarctica’s ice free environments currently has this high level of protection in place, represents a significant challenge.

“The Antarctic Treaty System’s Committee for Environmental Protection has recognised this challenge. Antarctic science has allowed us to understand more about the biodiversity of Antarctica’s ice-free environments, and the pressures on those environments from increasing human activity and from rapidly changing climates.  The Committee has prioritised work on improving the protected areas system.  The Committee regularly reviews its procedures for assessing protected area management plans and has begun to show increasing flexibility in the approach to the designation and de-designation of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas, to ensure the system remains responsive to changing situations.

“We (New Zealand) have also taken deliberate steps to improve the protection for special environments.  This has included promoting a novel approach to providing comprehensive protection for geothermal environments, which was adopted at the most recent Antarctic Treaty meeting (Brazil, May, 2014).”

Professor Karen Scott, Professor in Law, University of Canterbury, comments:

“The authors are correct in their assertion that the number and extent of designated protected areas is low (relative to global levels) and they are not ecologically representative. The authors do not note (but could have) that areas of the marine environment within the Antarctic Treaty area (south of 60 degrees south) are particularly under represented in terms of their protected area status. The authors do not however, acknowledge that there other areas protected under the Protocol – as Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMAs). The seven ASMAs generally cover a larger area individually than ASPAs and also provide for a level of protection higher than the continent more generally.

“Furthermore, I think the authors are too dismissive of the more general status of Antarctica as a protected area. Whilst Article 2 of the Protocol, which they quote, may not have a specific legal content, activities on Antarctica are relatively tightly regulated and subject to requirements such as environmental impact assessment, and controls on impact on biodiversity and removal of waste. I do not therefore think it is appropriate to compare the overall protection of Antarctica with Mali and Kazakhstan. I agree with the author’s final conclusion that we need to develop a systematic network of protected areas to protect Antarctic biodiversity as a whole.”