Heard Island in the southern Indian Ocean is to be the focus of extensive research in the 2003–04 summer season, Parliamentary Secretary for the Antarctic Dr Sharman Stone announced today.

The sub-Antarctic island study is one of 57 projects allocated more than $700,000 in Federal Government funding under the Australian Antarctic Science (AAS) Grants program

Dr Stone said that grants approved for Heard Island would enable the study of land-based predators such as penguins and seals and their prey.

“This is important in determining the levels of sustainable fishing in the island’s vicinity. Some albatross species will be included in the study because of their susceptibility to being caught and drowned on fisheries’ long lines,” said Dr Stone.

“The studies were part of a larger, wide-ranging examination of the ecosystem of Heard Island which, along with the nearby McDonald Islands, has been declared the largest marine reserve in the world.”

Dr Stone said that the Heard Island project was timed to coincide with the ongoing investigation into where predators were feeding. It will be carried out in conjunction with the Antarctic research vessel Aurora Australis to track penguins and their prey, mainly krill, so as to better understand the local ecosystem.

“As many Antarctic species such as whales, seals and sea birds rely heavily on krill as their main food source, it is particularly important to understand where and how krill move as this will give us clearer answers towards sustainable fisheries in the future,” Dr Stone said.

The Australian Antarctic Program’s chief scientist Dr Michael Stoddart has likened Heard Island to a working laboratory for scientists, with its evidence of recent global warming and melting glaciers offering information on possible future changes to biological ecosystems.

Other projects approved for 2003–04 include:

  • investigation of climate variability and sea level changes through several sources such as ice cores, 19th century Antarctic plants and data collected in rifts of the Amery Ice Shelf
  • comparisons between Antarctic and Arctic middle and upper atmosphere conditions and their effects so as to extend understanding differences and similarities between the southern and northern hemispheres
  • determining the level of lead and other contaminants in the Australian Antarctic Territory
  • ozone depletion and its effect on the Antarctic food web leading to climate change.

The 57 projects to receive funding under the AAS grants scheme are among 130 to be undertaken in Australia’s Antarctic Territory during the summer of 2003–04.

Applications are for the 2004–05 summer season will open in early May.