Antarctica at risk from flood of people

By Melissa Leong 24 May 2010
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Increasing numbers of visitors and poor management could prove detrimental to the fragile region.

ANTARCTICA, ONCE THE PRISTINE last frontier of wilderness, is being exposed to higher risks because of increased tourism and research activities.

“The risk of introduced diseases to Antarctic wildlife grows as the number of visitors to the region increases – and as bases and stations expand, so too do their footprints,” says Peter Garett minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts. He was speaking last week at the launch of a new book Health of Antarctic Wildlife: A Challenge for Science and Policy, held at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo.

Numbers of tourists have increased from 12,000 in 2001 to about 37,000 in 2009/2010. “The main impacts are potential disturbance to wildlife and vegetation and the introduction of alien species if tourism is not managed properly,” says adventurer Greg Mortimer, one of the book’s contributors. However, Greg also notes that current numbers are sustainable – it’s only if numbers increase significantly that we need to be concerned.

Managing a fragile region

There are however  problems with sewage management on the continent. Marine biologist and co-editor of Health of Antarctic Wildlife Martin Riddle says current sewage disposal “is the only thing we are allowed to do which we know will introduce huge amounts of non-native micro-organisms, including pathogens, into the environment.”  Treatment techniques have improved at research stations and previous dumping sites have been cleaned up to reduce contaminants, but this may not be enough, he says.

Currently, there are 14 scientific research stations within the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT). The publication highlights a need for practical and more responsible alternatives to waste disposal, as international scientific interest in the continent continues to increase.

Other threats exist; Martin says oil spills remain the most significant risk. Exploitation through over-harvesting and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, as well as global warming and pollution are also deteriorating the health of Antarctic biodiversity.

Strict measures are in place under the Madrid Protocol, set up in 1991 and enforced under the Antarctic Treaty system, to control most risks, but greater vigilance is vital to cushion the fast pace of change in the region, he says.

Whale research mission returns from Antarctica

Video below shows increasing human encroachment on Antarctic wildlife around the Australian Antarctic Division’s Davis Station. Davis is the most southerly Australian Antarctic station and is situated 2,250 nautical miles south-south-west of Perth (Credit: Australian Antarctic Division).