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A Call to Better Protect Antarctic Biodiversity

By Justine Shaw

As “the last wilderness on Earth” Antarctica requires a better system of protected areas.

Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, with less than 1% permanently ice-free. This ice-free land is where the majority of bio­diversity occurs, and is also where most human activity is concentrated, yet only 1.5% of these areas belong to Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System.

Threats to the ecological integrity of Antarctica are accelerating because of a growing variety, intensity and frequency of human activities and a rapidly changing climate. Biological invasions are most significant, with several established populations already impacting native species in Antarctica.

Human activities in Antarctica typically take two forms: the activities of National Antarctic Programs (i.e. scientists and their support personnel) and those that take place as part of fee-paying recreation (i.e. tourists and their support personnel). Antarctica has more than 40,000 visitors per year, with more research facilities being built in the continent’s tiny ice-free area. Activities associated with science include construction of buildings, roads and fuel depots.

Growing instances of unintentional damage are also being recorded, such as the establishment of harmful non-indigenous species, sewage spills and destruction of vegetation. Human activities, be they tourism or science-related, have increased considerably over the past 20 years and are expected to continue to do so.

We recently reviewed how well the existing protected-area system represents terrestrial biodiversity, and assessed the risk to protected areas from biological invasions – the most immediate conservation threat to biodiversity.

Our assessment quantified the proportion of ice-free land that is protected through Antarctic Specially Protected Areas. We then examined how well these areas represented Antarctic bio­diversity using recently developed protected-area assessment metrics, and quantified the level of threat these protected areas face from biological invasion using information from a recent, spatially-explicit risk assessment.

Our study found that all 55 areas designated for the protection of land-based biodiversity lie close to sites of human activity. Seven are at high risk for biological invasions, and five of the distinct ice-free ecoregions have no protected areas at all.

The analysis shows that protected areas in Antarctica currently fall well short of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – an international biodiversity strategy that aims to reduce threats to biodiversity and protect ecosystems, species and genetic diversity globally.

When we compared Antarctica’s protected area system with the protected areas of nations round the world, we found that Antarctica ranks in the lowest 25% of assessed countries. Many people think that Antarctica is well-protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one lives there, but we have shown that there are threats to Antarctic biodiversity.

We need to establish protected areas that are representative of Antarctic biodiversity to protect a diverse suite of native invertebrates, 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 increasing human activities, such as pollution, trampling or invasive species.

Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth that has no cities, agriculture or mining. It is unique in this respect – a true wilderness. If we don’t establish adequate and representative protected areas in Antarctica, this unique and fragile ecosystem could be lost.

Although we showed that the risks to biodiversity from increasing human activity are high, they are even worse when considered together with climate change. This combined effect provides even more incentive for a better system of area protection in Antarctica.

In a global context, the designation of Antarctica as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” under the Antarctic Treaty System is unique; no other continent has a similar level of apparent protection. This situation may be at least partly responsible for Antarctica’s repeated exclusion from global assessments of protected-area effectiveness. However, its apparent protection status reflects management intent, not management outcomes.

The Antarctica Treaty System already allows for the designation of protected areas in Antarctica. What is required now is a systematic network designed to best conserve the biodiversity of Antarctica as a whole. Once a protected area is designated and human activity restricted, management efforts are relatively minimal compared with protected-area management requirements on other continents. And what we would gain would be a protected area network that everyone could truly be proud of.

Justine Shaw is a member of the Environmental Decisions Group. She is based at the University of Queensland.