In 1959, 12 countries with scientists active in and around Antarctica signed the Antarctic Treaty, which committed all signatories to respecting the continent as a place of peace and science. Today, 52 nations are party to the treaty, and from June 1 to 10 they gathered in Sofia, Bulgaria, for the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) to discuss issues vital to Antarctic land conservation.
Members of Pew’s global penguin conservation campaign were in attendance, along with representatives from the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an international network of nongovernmental organizations committed to the conservation of the continent and its surrounding waters.
Each year at the ATCM, various issues related to Antarctica’s future are discussed, including the effects of tourism, ongoing scientific research, and climate change. But at this year’s meeting, a meaningful new action was taken: Treaty members formally recognized BirdLife International’s newly released Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Antarctica.
The Antarctic IBA project, undertaken by BirdLife International and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research with support from Pew, identifies the 204 parts of the continent important for the preservation of bird biodiversity. With the adoption of the IBAs, treaty members must now take these areas into account when planning and conducting activities in Antarctica, and must appropriately monitor bird populations to inform future management decisions.
While the ATCM focuses mainly on the land, the adoption of the IBAs has strong implications for the Southern Ocean surrounding it, specifically for action to be taken by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which governs the waters around Antarctica. Some penguin species such as chinstraps and Adélies have seen their populations decline in recent years, in part due to localized fishing in their foraging grounds, which are areas of ocean that the commission could protect.
Pew urges CCAMLR to create marine reserves in the Ross Sea and waters off East Antarctica, which would help make certain that food the penguins and other predators depend on is safe from overfishing. “Marine reserves and protected areas would prohibit fishing in important penguin habitat,” said Andrea Kavanagh, Pew’s director of global penguin conservation. “Such protection would help ensure that birds residing in continental IBAs are not affected by any depletion of prey from industrial fishing pressure.”
At the past four meetings of CCAMLR, proposals on protecting marine areas have been blocked. But with mounting evidence of the need to protect special places in the sea, the tide is turning. This could be the year that sees Antarctica not only fully protected on land, but also in some of its valuable surrounding waters.