Kick-off meeting of South Georgia MPA review shows important results and achievements | Polarjournal
If that’s not a reason to clap the flippers: the population of humpback whales around South Georgia has recovered to the point where it’s almost back to pre-whaling levels. (Image: Julia Hager)

The Marine Protected Area (MPA) around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is facing its 5-year review again, which began with a two-day science symposium. During this event, scientists presented some important results and achievements from the last five years.

Some 50 scientists met last week in Cambridge, UK, to present the latest results of their research in the marine protected area around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The symposium was hosted by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI), which committed to evaluating conservation efforts on a five-year schedule when the protected area was established in 2012. Research and monitoring are integral parts of the effective management of the MPA.

The focus of this year’s symposium was to present the research findings that have been added since the last review, which will be used to re-evaluate existing protection measures.

The MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands was extended in 2019 to encompass the entire administrative area (red) and now covers an area of 1.2 million square kilometers, of which 284,000 square kilometers are completely closed to lucrative fishing (green). This makes it the seventh largest among global marine protected areas. Map: British Antarctic Survey

The range of questions addressed was enormous and aligned with the knowledge gaps identified at the last review. Contribution topics ranged from the challenges of counting hundreds of thousands of penguins, to the first images of deep-sea residents in the South Sandwich Trench, to the impacts of climate change and human presence in the protected area.

Antarctic krill, the most important species in the Southern Ocean, received particular scientific attention. With regard to its central position as a food source for 186 species of invertebrates, fish, seabirds and marine mammals, the latest findings are worrying. According to Simeon Hill of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the occurrence of very dense krill aggregations appears to be decreasing. However, humpback whales and other baleen whales depend on them. Whether the abundance of krill has decreased or whether these dense swarms have migrated to other regions is now being investigated. To this end, krill monitoring in winter would be of crucial importance. However, due to changing environmental conditions caused by climate change, Hill believes that the quality of habitat for the crustaceans, which can grow up to six centimeters long, will deteriorate during this century. The impact on the rest of the food web would certainly be devastating.

Unexplored South Sandwich Archipelago: The easternmost part of the British overseas territory SGSSI ( pictured is Montague Island) is still largely uncharted. However, a total of five expeditions have shed some light on the darkness of the deep sea. (Image: Michael Wenger)

Another focus included the South Sandwich Islands, following the last review in 2018, which found that far too little was known about this part of the protected area. Subsequently, five research expeditions have headed to the archipelago, resulting in a wealth of new discoveries and several publications, including the special issue “South Sandwich Islands – an Understudied Isolated Archipelago” of the journal Deep-Sea Research II with ten studies. Particularly noteworthy are the first recordings of the fauna in the South Sandwich Trench at depths ranging from 6,000 to nearly 8,300 meters. One of the highlights for Heather Stewart and her team from BAS was the discovery of a previously unknown fish species. They also captured amphipods, brittle stars, sea cucumbers, snails, sponges and stalked crinoids on camera.

According to AWI researcher Sabine Kasten, the numerous rusting structures of the various former whaling stations on South Georgia, such as here in Grytviken, are a rich source of iron, which enters the ocean and influences the growth of phytoplankton. (Image: Julia Hager)

In addition, the symposium offered a variety of other highlights in terms of scientific findings:

  • Humpback whale populations have recovered since the whaling ban and have almost returned to their original levels.
  • Iron, a micronutrient, enters the ocean from the numerous rusting ex-whaling facilities on South Georgia and potentially affects the growth of phytoplankton.

Researchers concluded the symposium with an outlook on future projects to fill further knowledge gaps. For example, the Albatross Action Plan will explore the reasons for population declines in all three albatross species (Wandering Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, and Gray-headed Albatross) in the protected area. Meanwhile, other researchers plan to improve penguin colony monitoring using technologies such as drones, satellites, infrared cameras and artificial intelligence. Finally, a project is starting these days to study the effects of climate change on a species most important to South Georgia and its management, the Patagonian toothfish. It is one of the most important sources of income for the administration of the archipelago and thus also the future of its protection.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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