Antarctic Treaty meeting focuses on the environment

Delegates at an Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.
Meetings of Antarctic Treaty Parties and the Committee for Environmental Protection are the principal international forums for advancing Australia’s Antarctic policy interests. (Photo: Andrew Jackson)
A Weddell seal pupTourists on Cuverville Island.

World attention turned to the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, during a meeting of ministers in Washington D.C. in April.

The meeting celebrated the success of the Antarctic Treaty in promoting peaceful and cooperative governance of the Antarctic region and facilitating globally significant science (see Antarctic Treaty turns 50). Australia's Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, the Hon Peter Garrett AM MP, reinforced Australia's commitment to continue to work closely with the other Antarctic Treaty Parties to maintain and enhance the Antarctic Treaty system and to respond to improved knowledge and emerging challenges.

The work didn't end, however, when the ministers left. Several hundred representatives from the Antarctic Treaty Parties, plus invited observers and experts, travelled from Washington to Baltimore for two weeks of negotiations on a broad range of topics at the 32nd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and the 12th meeting of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP).

These meetings are the principal international forums for advancing Australia's Antarctic policy interests. Several Australian Antarctic Division officers are on the Australian delegation to these meetings, including Antarctic Division Director Lyn Maddock, Policy Branch Manager Tom Maggs, Chief Scientist John Gunn, and senior policy advisors Phillip Tracey and Ewan McIvor. The delegation also includes representatives from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Attorney General's Department, and advisors from the academic and conservation communities, and a representative of the state governments.

Australia played an active leadership role in the meetings. Among other things, delegates from the Antarctic Division led Australia's participation in the CEP, presenting several proposals for enhancing measures to protect the Antarctic environment, and in ATCM discussions of tourism management, science and operations.

Highlights of the meetings include:

  • Building on the positive response to Australia's proposal at the 31st ATCM in 2008, Australia led the meeting to finalise amendments of a key section of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty – Annex II on Conservation of Antarctic Fauna and Flora. These amendments establish more stringent arrangements to protect Antarctic flora and fauna, including measures to minimise the introduction of non-native species, and to afford special protection to threatened species.
  • With climate warming and the increasing number of visitors to Antarctica, addressing the risks to Antarctic biodiversity from non-native species is high on the Parties list of priorities. The CEP endorsed a proposal by Australia, France and New Zealand to develop practical measures to prevent such unwanted introductions.
  • The CEP agreed to develop a strategy, working closely with the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, towards the establishment of Southern Ocean marine protected areas in the next three years.
  • The Parties acknowledged the need to consider the implications of climate change for the management and governance of the Antarctic region and Norway offered to host a formal Antarctic Treaty Meeting of Experts (ATME) on the topic in early 2009. New Zealand will host another ATME on ship-based tourism in December 2009, to consider ways to improve shipping safety and incident response.
  • The number of tourists visiting Antarctica in the 2008-09 season was slightly lower than the previous year, but tourism issues were again a key topic of discussion. The meeting adopted legally binding rules about how tour operators manage visits ashore from ships. For safety and environmental reasons, large ships carrying more than 500 passengers will not be allowed to land people ashore. No more than 100 passengers will be allowed ashore at a time, at each landing site, and one guide per 20 passengers will be required.
  • The ATCM adopted new guidelines for seven sites used by visitors, adding to a suite of existing guidelines intended to help visitors minimise their impacts.
  • The Parties agreed with another proposal by Australia, France and New Zealand that the CEP should conduct a comprehensive study into the environmental aspects and impacts of Antarctic tourism, to provide a basis for future discussions of tourism and its management.

Papers and reports from the meetings are available from the website of the Secretariat to the Antarctic Treaty. Next year's meetings will be held from 5-14 April in Punta del Este, Uruguay.

EWAN MCIVOR and PHILLIP TRACEY

Policy Branch, AAD