South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are unique natural paradises in the South Atlantic, providing habitat for many species of seabirds and marine mammals. Due to their location in the Antarctic Convergence Zone, the waters around the islands are very rich in nutrients and provide optimal conditions for albatrosses, penguins, seals and whales. The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) protected the entire maritime zone around the islands back in 2012 – the largest marine protected area in the world with 1.24 million square kilometers. Yesterday, June 24, 2021, the government announced it would also designate the entire land mass of the islands as a protected area to preserve them for future generations.
The rules in the marine reserve are strict with a complete ban on bottom trawling and large “no-take zones” where all fishing activities are prohibited. Longline and krill fishing are restricted to four winter months when albatrosses and krill-eating penguins, seals, and whales are absent or in much lower numbers in the region. In addition, the transport and use of heavy oil is prohibited, as is the exploitation of natural resources. This model works for nature and for society, and is an example of how world-class conservation can be balanced with sustainable use.
For the equally ecologically valuable 3,800-square-kilometer land mass, existing protection measures and careful management are to be consolidated and enshrined in law with similarly strict rules as in the marine protected area. The new “Pathway to Protection” program will implement the Protect, Sustain, Inspire stewardship framework published in January 2021. It commits to creating a protected area that is inclusive of stunning landscapes and sites of historic and cultural significance, and that is a natural laboratory for conducting research of global significance and benefit.
It is particularly important to the government of the islands that the biodiversity is even better protected while opening the protected area to visitors. People should have the opportunity to experience these amazing habitats and develop collective knowledge about the islands’ biodiversity. The government’s goal is to create a truly sustainable visitor experience while best preserving the islands, described by David Attenborough as a “global rarity, an ecosystem in recovery.”
“With South Georgia increasingly in the limelight as a result of the science being undertaken on land and in the ocean it is important that areas needing special protection are given just that. British Antarctic Survey looks forward to working closely with the Government as Phase II takes shape on how local science can enhance policy and have a global impact.”Professor Dame Jane Francis DCMG, Director of the British Antarctic Survey
After past human activities have been particularly damaging to the environment on South Georgia, the territory is now to be managed in a sustainable manner so that every visitor has the chance to experience the wildness and wonder of South Georgia. The previously introduced rats, reindeer, and invasive plant species had disrupted the delicate ecological balance and brought some species to the brink of extinction. Thanks to their inaccessibility, the South Sandwich Islands have remained virtually untouched and spared invasive species. The new law is intended to further strengthen their inherent protection.
Already in September 2020, the GSGSSI released a new mandatory visitor film narrated by naturalist Sir David Attenborough, accompanied by striking images, informing visitors about the conservation measures and their own necessary contribution to the protection of the islands. The video can be viewed at the following link: https://www.gov.gs/south-georgia-a-visitors-guide/.
The Pathway to Protection programme will be implemented in two phases. In Phase I, the government will prepare the management plan in consultation with the global community of stakeholders to draft legislation for the protected areas. Phase 2 will see further work undertaken to identify areas in South Georgia that require additional research, monitoring and management within the protected area.
“South Georgia has long been close to IAATO’s heart, with its abundant wildlife, breath taking scenery and rich history. For decades we have closely collaborated with the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands to enable our visitors to sensitively and responsibly experience the magic of the islands first-hand. We look forward to contributing to this next exciting phase of protected area management and the continued conservation of this precious place for many generations to come.”Amanda Lynnes, IAATO Director of Environment & Science Coordination
The government is hoping for strong stakeholder participation to drive the ambitious land protection targets and will be setting up a panel in the coming months with representatives from the tourism industry, the scientific committee, government administration and conservation groups. According to the GSGSSI press release, consultation on management plans for each protected area is expected to take place before the end of 2022 so that there is a shared understanding of what should be protected and why.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal
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