A million square kilometres of ocean have been given new protection around the British territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. It will safeguard one of the most important fish-spawning grounds in the Southern Ocean – home to seven species of globally threatened sea bird, including the wandering albatross.
Sir David Attenborough, whose Frozen Planet BBC series was filmed partly on South Georgia, has welcomed the creation of one of the world’s largest marine reserves. He said: ‘This is extremely timely given the dramatic change that the polar regions are currently undergoing.’
South Georgia is richer in unique species than even the celebrated Galápagos islands, according to a study completed in 2011.
The Press Association news agency predicts that the UK’s announcement of a protection zone will further inflame tensions with Argentina over disputed South Atlantic territories.
Fishing will be banned in a 20,000-square-kilometre zone around the islands – one the UK’s most remote and pristine overseas territories. Commercial bottom trawling will be prohibited in the entire protection area and longline fishing – which is blamed for albatross deaths – will only be allowed at depths greater than 700 metres.
Limited fishing licences will be sold, to fund patrols to prevent illegal fishing.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds said the UK and island governments had already taken steps to avoid slaughter of albatrosses by longline fishing crews. A spokesman said: ‘This latest protection marks another leap forward, but we hope that it will be followed by additional specific protection for vulnerable marine species and resources.’
It wants tighter management of fishing for highly-prized Antarctic krill within the marine protected area.
The RSPB has said that albatross colonies around South Georgia have suffered ‘some of the most rapid declines seen in any population worldwide.’
Two artists, Chris Rose and John Gale, visited South Georgia in 2010 and later raised £15,000 for the RSPB’s work through an ‘art for albatrosses’ exhibition in London.
See also: Islands are key to ice riches