Science and policy in the marine realm

Some people say there is a ‘gap’ between policy development and scientific research. But in many areas related to conservation and management in the Southern Ocean it is often difficult to detect where the transition between fields occurs.

Resource management in the Southern Ocean began with the International Whaling Commission (IWC), but was later developed through the Seals Convention and CCAMLR (the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). CCAMLR has a scientific committee to provide expert advice to the commissions through which management decisions are made. The close relationship between scientists and policymakers in this forum, and the technical nature of the discussions, has resulted in a collaborative approach to the development of policy, and a strategic approach to science, based on policy needs.

Additionally, scientists can provide the continuity of representation that is often lacking from diplomatic or policy areas. Australia entered the field of Antarctic marine research in the early 1980s, after development of the krill fishery and the emergence of CCAMLR as the international body established to manage this, and other fisheries, in the Southern Ocean. CCAMLR adopted an ecosystem approach to management, after scientists advised that harvesting the key organism in the food chain (krill) might severely impact the animals that depended on them (seals, whales and seabirds), and other organisms within the Southern Ocean ecosystem. Harvesting krill was new territory in fisheries management, and required a close alignment of science and policy. Over the years this linkage has become even closer. Initial Australian marine research focused on krill, particularly its distribution and abundance. However, the absence of any baseline ecosystem data meant that a decade or two of exploratory research was necessary to begin to understand how the ecosystems off Antarctica function.

With the development of domestic fisheries for Patagonian toothfish and mackerel icefish at Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI), and at Macquarie Island in the 1990s, the Australian Antarctic Division focussed on providing targeted information to policy-makers that enabled direct management of these fisheries. In fact, the Australian HIMI fishery was the first in the CCAMLR Area to proceed only after assessments of the stock had been carried out – a precedent in world fisheries.

In the late 1990s it was apparent that information necessary to manage the living resources of the Southern Ocean was required continuously – both for domestic fisheries operating off the Australian Antarctic Territory and to inform the sustainable management of international fisheries. In 1999 the Antarctic Division developed a research programme, mandated to provide information to CCAMLR and the domestic fisheries management authority, to ensure the sustainable development of Southern Ocean fisheries.

The ecosystem approach of the new research programme made the Australian Antarctic Division a logical home for other priority areas of conservation science that emerged in the late 1990s. The numbers of albatrosses and petrels were known to be declining in the 1990s but it took a few years for the full extent of the problem and its cause to be recognised. Many species of highly endangered seabirds, such as albatrosses, were being accidentally caught when they seized bait from fishing lines being deployed by vessels in the Southern Ocean. The problem is a worldwide issue because such birds can cover vast distances on foraging trips — birds that breed in the Antarctic region can be accidentally caught near the equator on the other side of the globe. CCAMLR was one of the first bodies to recognise this as a serious conservation issue and invoked management measures to reduce the death of seabirds as a result of fishing practices. In the last few years these mitigation measures have been highly successful and their adoption resulted from a very close working relationship between scientists, policy-makers, fishing gear manufacturers, fisheries managers, politicians and diplomats. Scientists at the Antarctic Division and in the Australian Antarctic programme have been instrumental in the process of developing practical solutions to this difficult conservation problem.

One of the most contentious conservation issues in the Southern Ocean is whaling. During the brief period of industrial whaling over 1.3 million great whales were killed in Antarctic waters. Recovery of all stocks has been slow but there have been calls to begin commercial harvesting again. Australia has staunchly opposed a return to commercial whaling since 1978 and has advocated this position in the IWC. In 2002 the Australian Government transferred responsibility for the IWC to the Australian Antarctic Division, and a robust scientific research programme was developed to inform the consideration of conservation options in the IWC. The natural fit of cetacean research into the Antarctic Division’s ecosystem research programme, and the successful interactions between science and policy within CCAMLR, meant Australian whale research had a new home.

Today, the Antarctic Division’s Southern Ocean Ecosystems programme maintains its focus on supporting Australia’s position in key forums – including CCAMLR, the IWC and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. Because of the broad base of research and expertise necessary to provide advice to these bodies, the programme is also able to contribute to other forums. In collaboration with our partners at the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre we are also able to address issues relating to the effects of climate change on Southern Ocean ecosystems. Such strongly focussed research programmes are thus capable of serving several masters simultaneously, whilst at the same time producing world-class science.

STEVE NICOL, Programme Leader, Southern Ocean Ecosystems, AAD