Antarctic biodiversity needs protection – Expert reaction

Antarctica is teeming with life, but that life needs protection, say the authors of a new review published in Nature.

GARROTT_SEALS_CUTIERecent research has revealed that the variety of life in the seemingly inhospitable Antarctic is much greater than previously thought. However the review authors – including a New Zealander – warn that without adequate protection, human activity could drastically change these Antarctic ecosystems.

The authors highlight the fact that the region is not covered by the Aichi biodiversity targets, and say the Antarctic Treaty System is underfunded.

“In the face of growing challenges presented by fishing and interest in the Antarctic’s other resources, the situation is especially concerning,” they write.

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The Science Media Centre collected the following commentary:

Dr Craig Marshall, Senior Lecturer, Biochemistry Department, University of Otago, comments:

“The collection of Antarctic ecosystems are uniquely interesting on at least two counts: the native terrestrial and marine life has a unique evolutionary history, and it is largely undisturbed by human activities unlike almost every other major ecological system in the world. The Antarctic is a critical collection of environments that will provide keys to our understanding not just evolutionary mechanisms but also the interplay of environment and biology.

“We know very little of Antarctic ecosystems. What we do know we largely ignore: consider unsustainable fishing (and whaling) in the past and the present, and invasive species.

“We have a treaty to protect the Antarctic but this is woefully under-resourced and attracts little serious political attention. Antarctica is important to us all in the role it plays in global climate but it is also a unique kind of ecological and evolutionary laboratory. We will be the losers if we spoil it.”

Dr Alan Hemmings, Adjunct Associate Professor, Gateway Antarctica Centre for Antarctic Studies and Research, University of Canterbury, comments:

“Chown et al’s review provides a comprehensive and compelling assessment of the state of Antarctica’s biodiversity and the challenges it faces. Their observation of the absence of any equivalent to the Aichi Targets in Antarctica is spot on. Despite sterling work on components of environmental management within the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) currently fails to address the overall state of the Antarctic environment.

“This is partly a structural consequence of responsibilities being divided between the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Madrid Protocol) and Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), without overarching coordination. But, it also reflects the increasingly passive approach of governance under the ATS. In the past it has been in the vanguard of environmental governance, but as the latest Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM)  in Sofia, just ended, shows once again, these days it lacks the political will to adopt any new legally binding obligations.

“Sadly the minimalism of its internal development is coupled with a reluctance to apply global best practice developed elsewhere in non-Antarctic instruments. A ready first step might be for the ATS to formally adopt applicable Aichi Targets as a Measure (at an ATCM) and as a Conservation Measure (at CCAMLR) and task the respective Antarctic Secretariats with developing assessment and reportage mechanisms.”

Dr Neil Gilbert, Environment Manager, Antarctica New Zealand, comments:

“The review article by Professor Chown and others is stimulating and timely.  They make clear, and with good evidence, that our knowledge of Antarctica’s marine and terrestrial biodiversity remains patchy.  This may not be all that surprising when once considers the relatively recent nature of Antarctic science.  Although scientific discovery and survey were a feature of many of the earliest Antarctic expeditions, it was not until the late 1950’s that larger scale and longer-term research programmes began in earnest – and even then research effort has largely been restricted to the short austral summer seasons.

“What is of increasing concern is that our limited knowledge and understanding, albeit steadily improving, is potentially being outpaced by increasing pressures on Antarctica’s biodiversity – not least a changing climate and increasing human presence and activities.  Parts of Antarctica (the Antarctic Peninsula) are warming as rapidly as anywhere on the planet with rapid responses being observed in native wildlife.  Tourism activities have shown a significant increase in numbers since the early 1990’s and since 1994/95 seven new Antarctic stations have been constructed with a further four bases being rebuilt or extended (whilst this investment in research stations is on the one hand welcome, the majority of Antarctic bases are built on ice-free coastal locations, which is where much of Antarctica’s biodiversity is found).

“What is of utmost importance is that those responsible for governance of the region (the Parties to the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) are fully attuned to these pressures on the system, and that adequate research effort is put into surveying and understanding the drivers that are regulating Antarctic biodiversity, and that management mechanisms are effective, timely, evidence-based and regularly reviewed.

“As the authors of the paper suggest, currently there appears to be lack of coordinated, continent-wide survey and monitoring coupled with a desire for a low-budget approach to regional management.  New Zealand’s continued leadership in pressing for a large-scale marine protected area in the Ross Sea is of great importance in this context and further opportunities exist for establishing a set of Antarctic biodiversity targets for the region against which conservation progress can be assessed.

“The authors of the study conclude optimistically that the next 20 years will see a significant increase in our knowledge and understanding of Antarctic biodiversity.  What matters is that this knowledge is used effectively to maintain the highest conservation standards for the region – ultimately to ensure that Antarctica’s value as a continent devoted to globally relevant scientific research is maintained long into the future.”