Great British Oceans supports the designation of a fully-protected South Sandwich Islands marine sanctuary

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.

To this end, and in line with the objectives of the SGSSI MPA set out by the GSGSSI, the Great British Oceans coalition is calling for:

  • Reclassification of the waters around the South Sandwich Islands as a fully-protected marine sanctuary. This marine area is near-pristine, with only limited commercial fishing effort (which generates less than five percent of total revenues for GSGSSI). It has previously been argued that these vessels provide a deterrent to Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing in the area – but this is, of course, limited to the times and areas in which the vessels operate, and advances in satellite monitoring capabilities provide a cost effective opportunity to enforce a protected area without the need for commercial exploitation.
  • A ban on hydrocarbon and mineral extraction, enshrined in law across the whole SGSSI maritime zone, recognising both the risks of operating in this environment and the importance and sensitivity of the region.
  • Extension of the existing 12nm fully protected areas around South Georgia to better cover penguin foraging areas (as demonstrated by penguin foraging data collated by BirdLife International), and to be further evidenced by data to be submitted to the MPA Review by RSPB, BirdLife International and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), and funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts
  • Closure of Shag Rocks to pelagic fishing as suggested by GSGSSI in the 2013 MPA proposals, but not taken forward.
  • More precautionary management of the krill fishery around South Georgia, including: extension of the temporal krill fishery closure to October-April (to cover pre-laying breeding and fledging periods of penguins); increased reporting requirements (bringing it into line with other CCAMLR fisheries); updated survey to determine krill stock status (not done for 17 years); studies to examine fine-scale population dynamics in krill – i.e. to understand the impacts of localised depletion and move towards small-scale management unit approach.

Great British Oceans looks forward to working with the GSGSSI over the coming year in order to realise the importance of SGSSI and the potential for enhanced protection. Given the growing pressures on marine resources further south in the CCAMLR area, which ultimately affect SGSSI, the creation of a fully protected area around the South Sandwich Islands would, we believe, show leadership and catalyse international thinking on the sustainable management of marine resources.