Note: This analysis was updated on June 8, 2023, to include all of the involved partners.
Dotting the vast, frigid, nutrient-rich southern Atlantic Ocean between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, the rocky and isolated South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) support one of the largest and most varied aggregations of wildlife on the planet. This includes a wide array of whales, millions of seals, and tens of millions of breeding birds. In fact, Zavadovski—a 15-square-kilometer (6-square-mile) island—harbors the largest penguin colony on Earth, 1 million breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins.
Recognizing the region’s biological significance, the local government established a marine protected area (MPA) in 2012 with no-take zones surrounding the islands that total around 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles)—or 2% of the SGSSI exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The government enhanced these protections in 2013 and, following an independent five-year review, did so again in 2018. The MPA now encompasses the entire EEZ, and the fully protected areas cover about 283,000 square kilometers (109,266 square miles), or 23% of the total SGSSI marine zone. The second five-year review culminates in 2023, offering a chance to further bolster protections.
That review kicks off in June with a scientific symposium to assess the latest data about the site. This will inform discussions throughout 2023 as to whether the existing management measures are sufficient to protect this unique, globally significant, and irreplaceable marine ecosystem from the impacts of a changing climate and other anthropogenic pressures, such as highly concentrated commercial fishing.
The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, operating in the U.K. as part of the Great Blue Ocean coalition (GBO) and partnering with Oceans 5, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Bloomberg Philanthropies Ocean Initiatives and the Blue Nature Alliance, sees the review as a key opportunity to ensure that one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hot spots is effectively safeguarded and looks forward to the opportunity to play an active role.
The coalition is excited to assess the scientific case to fully protect the 400,000-square-kilometer (249,000-square-mile) South Sandwich Islands portion of the EEZ, which remains legally open to the exploitation of krill, and to explore opportunities to enhance protections around South Georgia. There is significant potential to fully protect huge swaths of the marine environment—which are currently unfished—with zero impact on the local economy. Similarly, the Australian government recently announced plans to strengthen and expand protections for the sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island Marine Park, which will safeguard an additional 350,000 square kilometers that serve as critical breeding grounds for millions of seabirds, seals, and penguins.
The SGSSI government showed in prior reviews that it will ratchet up protections in response to growing threats to the environment, and we are optimistic that this trend will continue with this year’s MPA review.
A recovering ecosystem faces new threats
Even after several cycles of exploitation over recent centuries, including the systematic removal of seals, penguins, baleen whales, and later finfish, the SGSSI ecosystem is recovering— while simultaneously facing enhanced threats from rising temperatures and a concentration of fishing effort.
In 1920 Antarctic fur seals, exploited on South Georgia since the late 1700s, were regarded as commercially extinct on the island. Today, Antarctic fur seals on South Georgia represent one of the densest aggregations of marine mammals on Earth. This includes more than 4 million seals—95% of the global population—which scientists estimate is more than the pre-exploitation population.
Baleen whales in the region are on a similar trajectory, with fin, right, blue, and humpback whales returning to SGSSI in significant numbers. This is remarkable given that between 1904 and 1966, more than 175,000 whales were processed for oil and meat on South Georgia and at least 1 million more were killed and processed on the factory ships operating across the Antarctic region. Experts attribute the recovery in large part due to improved international management, such as via the International Whaling Commission.
Unfortunately, SGSSI’s ongoing ecological recovery is not guaranteed. It requires the constant evolution of management measures in the face of updated scientific information and contemporary anthropogenic threats. For example, SGSSI, like all high-latitude environments, faces significant climate impacts such as ocean warming and an inundation of giant icebergs while an increasingly concentrated fisheries footprint for species such as krill threatens to further undermine the recovery of predator species such as penguins and whales.
Even with the MPA in place, 77% of SGSSI waters are open to commercial extraction of toothfish, icefish, and krill, a crustacean that underpins the entire Southern Ocean ecosystem. This presents a significant opportunity to enhance protections, and there is precedent for doing so: In its 2018 review, the U.K. government used data to restrict fishing where and when it overlapped with foraging penguins. The government also applied the precautionary principle to fully protect 250,000 square kilometers (96,500 square miles) of biologically important—but data-poor—areas, including the South Sandwich Trench. This had no impact on the local economy and carried no ramifications within the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the regional marine management body within which SGSSI is located. A similar approach could foreseeably be adopted in 2023, whereby large areas could be fully protected, with no direct impact on the local economy and regional management within CCAMLR.
In close collaboration with GBO and our partners, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project will support science that contributes to the MPA review process. Recent U.K.-led international agreements, such as the goal to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030, negotiated as part of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Framework, provide the foundations upon which the U.K. government can seek to counter the global biodiversity and climate crisis.
Johnny Briggs works on the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.