UK’s Antarctic Islands Need Protection

UK’s Antarctic Islands Need Protection.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) sit approximately 4,000 kilometres north of Antarctica and 2,700 kilometres east of South America in the South Atlantic Ocean. The United Kingdom Overseas Territory encompasses two geographically and geologically distinct groups of remote and inhospitable islands. The South Sandwich Islands are an arc of 11 small volcanic islands spread over 385 kilometres to the east of South Georgia.

There has been little attempt to explore and exploit the South Sandwich Islands for natural resources in comparison with the neighbouring waters of South Georgia, which saw both the boom and bust of the whaling and fur seal industries in the early 20th century and which currently support commercial fisheries for toothfish, icefish and krill. As such, the South Sandwich Islands are near pristine and are a global biological hotspot for threatened penguins and other seabirds. The islands host nearly half of the world’s chinstrap penguin population (1.3 million breeding pairs), more than a hundred thousand breeding pairs of Adélie penguins, and several thousand breeding pairs of gentoo penguins. In addition, the archipelago is the only arc of active volcanoes in the Southern Ocean and its waters contain unique deep-sea hydrothermal vent ecosystems and seamounts. In 2012, the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) established a sustainable use marine protected area (MPA) around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, to manage the local fishery and globally significant wildlife. There were welcome advances in marine conservation around the islands in 2013, but some strong protections – including several options identified by the Government itself – were not carried forward. This means that today, although the MPA encompasses 1.07 million square kilometres of the SGSSI exclusive economic zone (EEZ), just 2 percent of these waters are legally protected from extraction of resources such as fish. The Government of SGSSI is undertaking a five year review of the MPA which will culminate in 2018. This process represents a major opportunity for the Government to enhance the protection of one of our greatest biological assets, which is under increasing pressure from climate change, invasive species and commercial interest from extractive industries.

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