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A call to better protect Antarctica

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NERP Environmental Decisions Hub

M e d i a R e l e a s e

A call to better protect Antarctica

June 18, 2014 - for immediate release

With a surge in visitors to Antarctica, Antarctica’s ice-free land needs better protection from human activities, leading

environmental scientists say.

Antarctica has over 40,000 visitors a year, and with more and more research facilities being built in the continent’s

tiny ice-free area, the ‘last wilderness on Earth’ is one of the planet’s least-protected regions, say Dr Justine Shaw

and Professor Hugh Possingham of the National Environmental Research Program’s (NERP) Environmental

Decisions Hub.

“Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, with less than one per cent permanently ice-free. Only 1.5 per cent of this ice-free area belongs to Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System, yet ice free land is

where the majority of biodiversity occurs,” says Dr Shaw.

In a new study, Dr Shaw and her colleagues found that all 55 areas designated for protection of land based

biodiversity lie close to sites of human activity, seven are at high risk for biological invasions, and five of the distinct

ice-free ecoregions have no protected areas.

Most of the Antarctic wildlife and plants live in the ice free areas - and this is also where people most visit. Professor

Steven Chown of Monash University explains that the ice-free area contains very simple ecosystems due to

Antarctica’s low species diversity, which makes its native wildlife and plants extremely vulnerable to invasion by

exotic species.

“Antarctica has been invaded by plants and animals, mostly grasses and insects, from other continents. The very

real current and future threats from invasions are typically located close to protected areas. Such threats to

protected areas from invasive species have been demonstrated elsewhere in the world, and we find that Antarctica

is, unfortunately, no exception,” says Prof. Chown.

Dr Shaw says the study shows that Antarctica protected areas currently fall well short of the Aichi Biodiversity

Targets - an international biodiversity strategy that aims to reduce threats to biodiversity, and protect ecosystems,

species and genetic diversity.

“When we compared Antarctica’s protected area system with the protected areas of nations round the world, we

found that Antarctica ranks in the lowest 25 per cent of assessed countries,” says Dr Shaw.

“Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one

lives there, however we show that there are threats to Antarctic biodiversity,” she adds.

“We need to establish protected areas that are representative of Antarctic biodiversity to protect a diverse suite of

native insects, plants and seabirds, many of which occur nowhere else in the world. We also need to ensure that

Antarctic protected areas are not going to be impacted by increasing human activities, such as pollution, trampling or

invasive species.”

Prof. Possingham explains that Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth that has no cities, agriculture or mining.

“It is unique in this respect - a true wilderness. If we don’t establish adequate and representative protected areas in

Antarctica this unique and fragile ecosystem could be lost,” he says.

“Although we show that the risks to biodiversity from increasing human activity are high, they are even worse when

considered together with climate change. This combined effect provides even more incentive for a better system of

area protection in Antarctica.”

The research is supported by the NERP Environmental Decisions Hub, The University of Queensland School of

Biological Sciences, the Australian Antarctic Division and The Monash University School of Biological Sciences.

The study “Antarctica’s protected areas are inadequate, unrepresentative and at risk” by Justine D. Shaw, Aleks

Terauds, Martin J. Riddle, Hugh P. Possingham and Steven L. Chown is published in PLoS Biology. See:

The Australian Government funds the National Environmental Research Program (NERP) to inform evidence-based

policy and sustainable management of the Australian environment.

More information:

Dr Justine Shaw, NERP Environmental Decisions Hub and The University of Queensland, +61 (0)429 422 921

(Ireland time)

Professor Hugh Possingham, NERP Environmental Decisions Hub and The University of Queensland, +61 (07)

3365 2527 or +61 (0)434 079 061

Professor Steven Chown, Monash University, + 61(03) 9905 0097 or +61 (0)499 780 433

Melisa Lewins, NERP Environmental Decisions Hub and UQ, +61 (0)7 3365 2527