Antarctic expedition supports case for MPA
8 March 2006 Media Statement
Discoveries made during an Antarctic expedition to the remote Balleny Islands more than 2000 kilometres south of New Zealand will boost the case to protect the area, Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton says.
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.
Contacts: Ministry of Fisheries' senior scientist Dr Ben Sharp Ph 04 819 4254
Expedition leader Dr Franz Smith Ph 04 475 5099.
Photos available at: http://www.fish.govt.nz/sustainability/biodiversity/picGallery.htm
BACKGROUND: TIAMA EXPEDITION MEMBERS
- Skipper: Henk Haazen of Waiheke Island is the designer, owner, and skipper of Tiama. He has 25 years of sailing experience, more than half of it specialised in remote and high-latitude sailing expeditions
- 1st mate: Mike Dellamore of Waiheke Island is a professional sailor specialising in expedition work. He has completed numerous research voyages to the Subantarctic Islands on board Tiama
- 2nd mate: Steve Parsons of Auckland is a professional sailor with 19 years blue-water sailing experience
- Chief Scientist/ Expedition leader: Dr. Franz Smith of Wellington is a marine ecologist with extensive underwater experience in New Zealand and also internationally, including previous Antarctic research
- Dr. Nick Shears is a marine ecologist at the University of Auckland with extensive experience in rocky reef habitats throughout New Zealand
- Rebecca McLeod is a marine ecologist at the University of Otago with experience in the use of stable isotope analyses to study marine food webs
- Clinton Andrew of Invercargill is a surveyor and climber with experience providing logistical support for remote expeditions
BACKGROUND: BALLENY ISLANDS
The Balleny Islands lie over 2000 km south of New Zealand, in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica.
The Balleny Islands and the ocean around them are a particularly important part of the larger Ross Sea ecosystem. It supports abundant marine life, and populations of large predators, including whales, seals, seabirds, and penguins. The region also supports a valuable fishery for Antarctic toothfish.
New Zealand is committed to the sustainable management of Antarctic fisheries and the protection of the Ross Sea regional ecosystem. Research from the Ministry of Fisheries' recent voyage will help New Zealand further this work, and ensure this special ecosystem remains healthy.
They are the only islands at this latitude for thousands of kilometres in both directions, and provide essential breeding and nesting habitat for land-dependent Antarctic seal and seabird populations.
The surrounding waters are very productive, supporting extremely high densities of Antarctic krill and, possibly, other important marine life. There is some evidence that these waters are essential habitat for both juvenile toothfish and juvenile krill, both of which are important species for the function of the wider Antarctic ecosystem.
Several whale species are known to feed in the area, some of them migrating long distances to get there.
Because of their unique biodiversity and ecological importance, the Balleny Islands have been identified as a candidate for special protection and management.
One small island in the group, Sabrina Island, is already an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), partly because of a tiny remnant population of chinstrap penguins. There are no other chinstrap penguins for thousands of kilometres in any direction.
Since 2000, New Zealand has publicly stated its intention to propose a high seas Marine Protected Area (MPA) that includes the Balleny Islands and the seas around them.
The Ministry of Fisheries is committed to an MPA proposal based on solid scientific information. However, scientific knowledge of the islands is scarce, in large part due to their remote location and extraordinarily harsh conditions, even by Antarctic standards.
The islands are completely surrounded by ice for up to 11 months of every year. Violent storms are common. Volcanic in nature, the islands rise from an underwater depth of nearly 2000 m to a vertical elevation of more than 1000 m. Much of the coastline consists of sheer vertical cliffs topped by overhanging ice. Safe shore landing sites are few, and until this voyage it was commonly thought that there were no safe anchorages for research vessels in the vicinity of the islands.
NZ has legal obligations to take an ecosystem approach to management of Antarctic marine living resources, under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
In advance of a CCAMLR workshop in August 2005, the Ministry of Fisheries led the preparation of a paper outlining New Zealand's approach to the case for a Balleny Islands MPA. That paper focussed on the important ecological processes that occur around the Balleny Islands, processes that are believed to be critical to the healthy functioning of the larger Ross Sea ecosystem.