Permits: essential environmental safeguards

The Madrid Protocol imposes on all Antarctic Treaty nations, including Australia, the obligation to impose limits on what people may do in the Antarctic, whether participating in a national program or visiting in a private capacity. The Protocol is given effect for Australian activities by a 1994 amendment to the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980.

Under this legislation no Australian may remove or interfere with any Antarctic animal or plant without a permit, unless the action was for the establishment, supply or operation of a station, in the case of an emergency or to protect the environment.

Permits allow collecting of animal and plant specimens for scientific, educational or cultural purposes only. The permit-holder may take no more animals than can be replaced by the next breeding season and must ensure that habitats, species variety and ecosystem balance for the area are maintained.

Native animals and plants may be given added protection by being designated under the Madrid Protocol specially protected species. All species of fur seal and the Ross seal are currently on this list.

The legislation makes it an offence to disturb animals with a helicopter, a vehicle, a vessel or on foot without a specific permit. Over the past few seasons Australian scientists and environmental officers have determined minimum approach distances to minimise disturbance. These distances are set out in the Australian Guidelines: Flight paths for helicopter operations in Australian Antarctic Territory and Environmental Code of Conduct, both of which are available on the Australian Antarctic Division website.

Protected areas established under the 1964 Agreed Measures for the Conservation of Fauna and Flora to preserve unique natural systems or scientific values are covered by the Act. A permit to enter a protected area will only be granted if the activity is authorised by the area's management plan. The permit may have conditions.

Before a permit is granted for an activity, the potential environmental impact of the activity must be assessed. Permits are generally issued yearly for multi-year projects to ensure that they reflect approved annual work programs and that they are consistent with all relevant approvals, including Antarctic Animal Ethics Committee conditions. About 30 permits are granted by Australia annually under the Act for activities in Antarctica.

The Australian Antarctic Division is presently seeking to integrate the processes for permit approvals, authorisations under EIA legislation and other approval requirements for people proposing activities in Antarctica.

Maxine Wolf, Permits Officer, AAD