Antarctic protected areas: layer upon layer

The protection provided to the Antarctic environment by isolation, a harsh climate and the absence of permanent inhabitants is no longer sufficient. Recognising this, the Antarctic Treaty parties have established formal protective arrangements including banning of nuclear, military and mining activity, requirements for environmental impact assessment of all activities and for minimising production and disposal of waste, and protection of all wildlife.

Under such comprehensive protection measures, the entire Antarctic region could be considered a protected area, but Treaty parties have deemed that some areas warrant additional protection due to the values they contain, or the risks of human impacts on these values. Since the early days of the Antarctic Treaty System there has been some form of Antarctic protected area system.

The 1964 Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Antarctic Flora and Fauna provided special protection to areas with unique natural ecological systems. These Specially Protected Areas (SPAs) were only to be entered under permit for compelling scientific purposes. Australia manages three SPAs, approved at the fourth Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in 1966 (see box below).

In 1972, Treaty parties agreed to a new category, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), to cover any characteristics of exceptional scientific interest. Entry to these sites also requires a permit and compliance with an accompanying management plan. Australia manages three SSSI (see box below).

Annex V to the Madrid Protocol, details a new Antarctic protected area framework intended to combine and strengthen previous arrangements. Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) are to replace SPAs and SSSI, while Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMAs) are designated to facilitate cooperation between nations or to minimise environmental impacts. Places recognised for their cultural heritage value may be designated as ASPAs or ASMAs, or listed as historic sites and monuments as appropriate. Annex V is expected to enter into force soon, and the Treaty parties have agreed to implement its measures in the interim.

The Committee for Environmental Protection has developed guidelines to help national operators assess the protection needs of special areas, and to ensure that consistent and effective management plans are developed. These guidelines are available at the CEP website at [resource no longer available]. Draft management plans are tabled at CEP meetings for discussion and possible modification prior to being passed to the full Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting for adoption. Areas currently being considered by Australia for proposal as new protected areas include Cape Denison at Commonwealth Bay, where Douglas Mawson established a base in 1911, and the Frazier Islands near Casey, home to an important colony of southern giant petrels. Australia is also cooperating with China and Russia to develop an ASMA in the Larsemann Hills, an ice-free area that supports facilities of the three nations.

The Australian Antarctic Division also administers the World Heritage listed Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands, in accordance with the Heard Island Wilderness Reserve Management Plan.

Managing, restricting or prohibiting human access to places in the Antarctic and subantarctic are in some cases the only means of ensuring sufficient environmental protection. While this could be considered 'protected area double-dipping', particularly in the case of Antarctica with its comprehensive environmental regime, the end result is protection of the values that make these areas special. And who wouldn't rather have two scoops than one, given the opportunity?

Ewan McIvor
Environmental Management and Audit Unit,
Australian Antarctic Division

ATS-recognised protected areas managed by Australia

Specially Protected Areas (SPAs)

SPA 1: Taylor Rookery, Mac.Robertson Land (~0.4 km2) – The Taylor Rookery emperor penguin colony is among the few, and probably the largest, of the known colonies of this species located entirely on land.

SPA 2: Rookery Islands, Holme Bay, Mac.Robertson Land (~30 km 2) – The 75 small islands of the Rookery group exhibit an unusual association of all six bird species resident in the Mawson station area. Of these, the southern giant petrel and the cape petrel occur nowhere else in the region.

SPA 3: Ardery Island and Odbert Island, Budd Coast (~1.9 km2) – These two islands are an example of the habitat of several breeding species of petrel, two of which, the Antarctic petrel and Antarctic fulmar, are of particular scientific interest.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

SSSI 16: North-eastern Bailey Peninsula, Budd Coast, Wilkes Land (~0.5 km2) – Bailey Peninsula, an irregular area of rock exposed during summer, contains contrasting habitats and water bodies with rich lichen and moss communities and an important stand of liverwort. Proximity to nearby Casey station increases potential for disturbance of study areas.

SSSI 17: Clark Peninsula, Budd Coast, Wilkes Land (~12.1 km2) – Clark Peninsula supports moss and lichen communities and penguin colonies used as control sites to monitor the environmental impact of Casey station.

SSSI 25: Marine Plain, Mule Peninsula, Vestfold Hills, Princess Elizabeth Land (~23.4 km2) – The vertebrate fossil fauna of Marine Plain includes a new species, genus, and probably family of fossil dolphin. Burton Lake, within the site, represents a unique stage in the biological and physio-chemical evolution of a terrestrial water body from the marine environment.