Antarctica: isolated for millions of years, the fauna endangered by the hulls of tourist boats

In the era of the Anthropocenecase

The mass tourism in Antarctica, one of the last sanctuaries on the planet, poses a number of environmental problems. Among other things, the risk of seeing marine species invade polar biodiversity.

If the white continent makes more and more travelers dream, tourism in Antarctica is an environmental aberration. Because beyond polluting and harming land animals, these expeditions charged up to 15,000 euros and reserved for a certain elite threaten the marine fauna of this fragile ecosystem. Indeed, boats from all over the planet bring invasive species back to the waters of the Southern Ocean on their hulls, as explained in an article by the BBC.

This is precisely what a recently published study by teams from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Cambridge reveals of the research, fishing and tourist vessels that regularly visit this remote region.

It reveals that the boats that sail off the Antarctic coast come from 1,500 ports around the world. And that is problematic. Because “almost any place can be a potential source of invasive species [qui] can completely change an ecosystem,” developed with the BBC researcher Arlie McCarthy, of the University of Cambridge. “They can create entirely new habitats that would make it harder for Antarctic animals to find their own place to live.”

Potential invader mussels, crabs and algae

Potential invaders include any marine species capable of clinging to the hull of a boat and surviving the voyage to Antarctica. Mussels, barnacles, crabs and algae are of particular concern because they attach themselves to the hulls, in a process called “biofouling” or biofouling in English. Mussels, for example, can survive in polar waters and spread easily, threatening marine life on the seabed. Their filtering of water changes the marine food chain as well as the chemistry of the water around them.

The species native to Antarctica are particularly fragile since they “have been isolated in the last 15 to 30 million years”, worries David Aldridge, professor at the University of Cambridge. Invasive species represent one of the greatest threats to biodiversity in the region. And the risk of losing endemic species is therefore higher in Antarctica.

Admittedly, tourist boats bring back some potentially invasive species. But they do not extend for the moment since Antarctica remains for the time being “the last place in the world where we don’t have marine invasive species. So we have [encore] the possibility of protecting it”, says Arlie McCarthy.

Clean and inspect hulls

To ensure that new species do not disturb the fragile habitats of the South Pole, scientists are calling for the urgent implementation of strict rules for ships. The current measures, which consist of cleaning the hulls of boats, are only in force in a few ports of entry at the gates of the continent.

The British Antarctic Survey, the British national operator in Antarctica, uses sniffer dogs to search for rats or mice on board research vessels. But the organization now wants “enhanced biosecurity protocols” and further precautions to safeguard southern waters. This means, for example, inspecting the hulls of boats with cameras and cleaning them more frequently.

These measures are particularly important with climate change, which suggests new threats, such as the increase in ocean temperature.

More than 70,000 travelers in one year

To determine the weight of traffic on the world’s southernmost continent and the origins of the boats, research teams from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Cambridge used satellite data and international shipping databases. maritime.

As a result, the ships that connect the most isolated parts of Antarctica to the 1,500 ports around the world come mainly from South America and Europe. The study also revealed that tourism represented 67% of visits to Antarctic sites, well ahead of research which represents 21% and fishing, 7%.

According to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, the 2019-2020 season saw more than 70,000 people visit the area. While the sector has been disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, that number has steadily increased since the first hundred visitors from Chile and Argentina arrived in the South Shetland Islands in the 1950s.

But the massification of tourists is not without consequences. “Wherever these ships go, we see other types of human impact on the environment, whether it’s accidental discharge of waste, pollution, collisions with wildlife or noise pollution”, warns Arlie McCarthy. One more reason, if one were needed, to drastically regulate this booming tourism.

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