UK Expands Marine Protections in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

Globally significant biological hotspot harbours a myriad of penguins, whales, birds and seals

Editor's note: The release was updated on February 27, 2024, to correct a partner's name and on April 8, 2024, to correct the spelling of an island.

LONDON—The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, working in partnership with the Great Blue Ocean coalition, today applauded the UK and local government’s decision to vastly expand marine protections for the frigid, nutrient-rich waters surrounding South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI)—which support one of the largest and most varied aggregations of wildlife on the planet.

Recognising the region’s biological significance, UK Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Lord Richard Benyon, today announced full protection for more than 166,000 additional square kilometres (64,000 square miles) of the South Atlantic Ocean surrounding the remote islands. The announcement, which came at the Blue Belt Symposium in London, helps ensure that crucial corridors for whale migrations and penguin foraging are fully protected from human activity in perpetuity.

The marine protected area (MPA) for South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands is subject to scientific review every five years to gauge effectiveness and incorporate the most up-to-date research and data. This is the second such review, and protections have been strengthened each time. Full protections within the MPA now encompass approximately 450,000 square kilometres (173,000 square miles) —an area roughly twice the size of the UK.

The region’s waters teem with life as they slowly recover from centuries of industrial-scale exploitation of seals, penguins, whales and finfish; for example, humpback whales that feed in the region have rebounded to over 90% of their pre-whaling population. There are no permanent human residents on the islands, which sit equidistant between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula, but the biodiversity includes a wide array of whales, millions of seals and tens of millions of breeding birds. In fact, Zavodovski—a 15-square-kilometre (6-square-mile) island—harbours the largest penguin colony on Earth: 1 million breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins.

But the waters are also facing modern threats from rising temperatures and concentrated fishing efforts. In the past year alone, scientists observed the lowest sea ice extent ever recorded around Antarctica and major associated failures of emperor penguins breeding in the Bellingshausen Sea. The productive ocean is also increasingly coveted by sophisticated krill fishing fleets—which pursue the protein-rich crustacean for use in health supplements and aquaculture.

Dona Bertarelli, a philanthropist, ocean advocate, and patron of nature for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, said:

“The health of our planet and its people is inextricably linked to the health of our oceans. This commitment demonstrates huge foresight and ambition—applying a precautionary approach to conservation at a time of increasing environmental degradation and commercial interest in the Southern Ocean. By taking decisive action, the UK is setting a bold example for the world by committing to highly protect at least 30% of the global ocean, safeguarding the essential ecosystems that sustain us all.”

Johnny Briggs, who leads the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project’s work in UK waters, said:

“Amid dual threats of climate change and biodiversity loss, this is a pivotal step towards safeguarding a global wildlife hotspot. Through this latest five-year review of the MPA, the government has demonstrated best practice in marine management—applying new science to protect crucial migratory corridors for species such as baleen whales and toothfish.”

The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project—created by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Dona Bertarelli—has supported expanded marine protections for SGSSI as a partner in the Great Blue Ocean coalition, along with the Blue Marine Foundation, Greenpeace UK, the Marine Conservation Society, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Zoological Society of London. This work was also supported by the Blue Nature Alliance, Bloomberg Ocean Initiative, Oceans 5 (which is a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors) and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Sovereignty over South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands remains contested by Argentina.

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The Pew Charitable Trusts and Dona Bertarelli created the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project with the shared goal of establishing the first generation of ecologically significant, large and effective marine protected areas (MPAs) around the world. Today, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project also seeks to connect MPAs and help conserve key migratory species and entire marine ecosystems. These efforts build on more than a decade of work by Pew and the Bertarelli Foundation to create large-scale, highly or fully protected MPAs. Between them, the organizations have helped to obtain designations or commitments to safeguard nearly 12.6 million square kilometres (4.8 million square miles) of ocean by working with communities, local leaders, philanthropic partners, Indigenous groups, government officials and scientists.

Founded in 1948, The Pew Charitable Trusts uses data to make a difference. Pew addresses the challenges of a changing world by illuminating issues, creating common ground and advancing ambitious projects that lead to tangible progress, including the need for effective marine conservation.

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