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Antarctic expedition supports case for MPA

Antarctic expedition supports case for MPA


The expedition was organised by the Ministry of Fisheries to gather scientific information to support a New Zealand proposal for a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the islands, which lie on the edge of the Ross Sea, just where Antarctic waters meet the Southern Ocean.

"New Zealand is committed to the sustainable management of ecosystems in the Ross Sea region and has stated its intention to propose a high seas MPA covering the Balleny Islands archipelago and we need the scientific information to support that.

"We also have legal obligations under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to take an ecosystem approach to management of Antarctic marine resources," Mr Anderton says.

The islands' isolation and local conditions means research in the Balleny Islands has never been easy. They are surrounded by ice for up to 11 months of the year and several of the islands rise nearly 1000 metres from the sea. The near-shore waters are largely uncharted, and anchorages are difficult. Tiama, a 15-metre yacht purpose-built for Antarctic conditions was used, allowing access to previously difficult areas.

Expedition leader Dr Franz Smith says the islands' location - the only land at that latitude for thousands of kilometres - makes the sealife there absolutely unique. The area is a potential hotspot of Antarctic marine life, and scientists believe it may be critical to the health of the entire Ross Sea ecosystem.

The expedition was the first to have put divers into the waters around the Balleny Islands, and hours of videotape from the dives is still to be analysed, though Dr Smith predicts there are more discoveries to be made.

"Diving is so different to sending down a remote video camera. If you think of a remote camera like driving a car, then diving is like walking around with a camera - you just find out so much more about a place," Dr Smith says.

Marine ecologist Dr Nick Shears says the scientific mission has proven hugely successful.

"From this trip alone, we've found the diversity of algae species at the Balleny Islands is equal to or even greater than that of the entire Ross Sea. One or more of these species may be new to science. However, there are still many samples to be unpacked and identified."

Expedition members also photographed and filmed humpback whales for comparison with images from breeding grounds in the tropics to identify which humpback populations make this migration. Scientists also gathered biopsy samples from the whales for stable isotope and DNA analysis.

Another remarkable discovery was waiting ashore. One of the Balleny Islands, Sabrina Island, is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area, partly because of the tiny population of chinstrap penguins living there - the only chinstrap penguins for thousands of kilometres in any direction.

The colony was previously thought to number only a few dozen individuals, but the expedition counted 212 adults and 119 chicks; and discovered a whole new colony on another island.

Scientist Rebecca McLeod says that find was one needing further research.

"It's an amazing discovery, but we don't know why there is such a huge difference between what we found and what others found before us. It is possible that chinstrap populations are expanding rapidly - perhaps as a consequence of climate change. Now that we have done a good job of mapping and counting, we'll have to come back in a few years time to find out what is really happening."

While the expedition data, when analysed, will provide stronger information to support the proposal for a Marine Protected Area around the islands, the proposal will require approval under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and the Antarctic Treaty System before it can proceed.

New Zealand's CCAMLR Commissioner Trevor Hughes, of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, welcomed this scientific work. "We are looking forward to the contribution that the results of the Tiama voyage will make to strengthening the scientific case for protection of this unique marine environment," he says.

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