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Antarctic Treaty meeting moves to protect frozen continent from non-native species

Important new measures to protect Antarctica – the world’s last great wilderness – from invasive non-native species have been agreed at a meeting of Antarctic experts in Edinburgh.

Scientists and policy makers at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, which finished at Edinburgh International Conference Centre on Friday 23 June, agreed new measures that will reduce the risk of non-native species being introduced into both marine and terrestrial ecosystems in Antarctica.

To protect the marine environment, the meeting adopted new practical guidelines for ballast water exchange by ships operating in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. Under the new guidelines drawn up by the UK, vessels will need to exchange any ballast water before arriving in Antarctic waters, and plan for and keep records of all ballast water operations.

According to Dr John Shears of British Antarctic Survey, “In the past, Antarctica was isolated with a very harsh and cold environment, which made it very difficult for non-native species to establish. However, more and more people are travelling to the continent, most of them on ships. Evidence from other parts of the world has shown that there is a direct link between numbers of people visiting a remote area and the numbers of non-native species that survive. Once established, they can be very difficult to eradicate. Prevention is better than cure.”

Concerned that a rapidly changing and warming climate on the Antarctic Peninsula could increase the risk of non-native species establishing themselves on the continent itself, the meeting also backed a series of recommendations made by New Zealand. These include development of a code of conduct for land-based activities - a set of minimum standards that all visitors, including tourists and scientists, would have to follow. Scientists called for more research into the issue. Dr Shears said that scientists need to identify which areas of Antarctica are most vulnerable and better understand the potential implications of climate change on the spread of non-native species.

Dr Shears says, “Antarctica’s remoteness and isolation offer science a unique opportunity to understand our world. Part of Antarctica’s value as a natural laboratory lies in the fact that its communities of animals and plants consist of only a few species living in simple relationships. This makes the Antarctic a perfect place to study how ecosystems work. The inadvertent introduction of non-native species into Antarctica could put this in jeopardy, and has the potential to change the continent’s biodiversity forever.”

Linda Capper | alfa
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