Antarctica’s suite of protected areas should be expanded to ensure it safeguards the continent’s unique biodiversity, according to new Australian research.

The research, published today in PLOS Biology, found that only 1.5% of Antarctica’s ice-free areas are formally designated as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs). It also found that the biodiversity protected by these ASPAs is at increased risk from introduced species, due to the proximity of human activity.

Through the international agreement that protects the Antarctic environment — the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (or ‘Madrid Protocol’) — the whole of Antarctica is designated a natural reserve, where protection of the environment is fundamental to all activities. However, ASPAs provide an additional level of protection to places of particular importance. Of the 73 existing ASPAs, 55 have been designated for their biological diversity.

Lead author of the paper, Dr Justine Shaw, of the University of Queensland and the Australian Antarctic Division, said that every one of the 55 ‘biological’ ASPAs lie closer to sites of human activity than expected by chance, and seven lie in high risk areas for non-native species invasions. No ASPAs exist in five of 15 distinct ice-free ‘eco-regions’ (these eco-regions were developed in 2012 to help classify and protect biodiversity).

“It’s important to note that the risks to Antarctica are not necessarily greater than elsewhere, but Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems are extremely vulnerable” Dr Shaw said.

“Our findings show that the existing ASPAs are in or near locations that are at a greater risk from invasion by non-native species.”

Australian Antarctic Division senior scientist and a co-author on the paper, Dr Martin Riddle, said that these findings are not surprising given that accessible ice-free areas within five kilometres of the coast make up only 0.05% of the continent, but are home to most of the biodiversity. They are also the areas where most research stations and tourism activities occur. As a result, many ASPAs were originally declared to protect the resident plant, animal and invertebrate species from station-based activities and many were established as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, to protect them for research, rather than for their intrinsic biodiversity values.

“The findings from this research paper are important because they highlight the need for a fundamental change in our approach to protection,” Dr Riddle said.

“In the past there was a tendency to protect areas under most threat, but the Madrid Protocol calls for the protection of representative examples of all major ecosystems. This study highlights that the current protected areas do not represent each of the ice-free eco-regions, and that protection measures need to better consider the locations of human activity.”

Dr Riddle said the paper was effectively an exercise in ‘benchmarking’, which is an important part of the process of improving protection measures. The paper does this by presenting the first continent-wide assessment of special protection afforded to Antarctic terrestrial biodiversity and compares it with area protection measures adopted in other parts of the world.

“Antarctica is very different from other parts of the world, and while we should learn from best practice elsewhere we must always ask: what is best for Antarctica given its unique characteristics?” Dr Riddle said.

The Madrid Protocol provides for the designation of ASPAs, under advice from the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), to protect outstanding environmental, scientific, historic, aesthetic and/or wilderness values, or ongoing or planned scientific research. It also calls for the identification of a series of ASPAs within a ‘systematic environmental-geographic framework’, including representative examples of major ecosystems.

Australian Antarctic Division Senior Environmental Policy Adviser and newly appointed Chair of the CEP, Ewan McIvor, said that the paper highlighted issues that are subject to ongoing and high priority work by the CEP.

“Together with other mechanisms, such as the environmental impact assessment of all activities, proper waste management, and controls on interactions with flora and fauna, the suite of specially protected areas plays a fundamentally important role in ensuring the long-term protection of Antarctica’s values,” Mr McIvor said.

“The Committee for Environmental Protection recently endorsed the 15 biologically-distinct eco-regions — the Antarctic Conservation Biogeographic Regions — as an important reference for its ongoing work to further develop the suite of protected areas, and to address non-native species risks.”

The work of the CEP and Antarctic Treaty Parties is supported by Australian Antarctic Division research, in accordance with the Australian Antarctic Science Strategic Plan 2011–12 to 2020–21, to improve the scientific foundation for spatial management and area protection in Antarctica and to prevent the incursion of non-native species.