IAATO Supports Findings of New Study on Antarctic Invasive Species...

Members continue ongoing protocols and procedures to curtail such introductions

IAATO was pleased to support a detailed study outlining the risks related to the inadvertent reintroduction of foreign plants and animals into the Antarctic environment. Authored by an international team of scientists led by Prof. Steven Chown, director of the DSF-NRF Centre of Excellence for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and including IAATO Operations Director Dr Kim Crosbie, the study appeared in the March 2012 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) and can be reviewed here.

The unintentional entry of non-native or alien species is one of the highest priority concerns in Antarctica today. This is the potential consequence of human visitors – including governmental and scientific personnel as well as tourists – and the increased diversity of their activities in recent years. While these vectors can provide a means of access, a potentially more hospitable environment exacerbates the concern, as areas of the Antarctic experience higher average annual temperatures than in the past. This study focused on endeavoring to better understand the risks underlying these concerns as a clearer understanding of the risks, can ensure better management practices to minimize the risks.

Some of the notable facts of the study included:

  • IAATO and IAATO operators actively participated, in terms of sample and data collection in the field.
  • About 2% of the 33,000 tourists and 7,000 scientific team members who visited in Antarctica in 2007 – the year of the study's fieldwork – were sampled and asked questions about their previous travel. The process included fine combing and vacuuming of camera bags, outer clothing and other baggage.
  • For those visitors carrying seeds, the number per visitor averaged 9.5 seeds. The largest risk of seed transfer per visitor was associated with scientific personnel and tourism support personnel, rather than with tourists themselves. 
  • IAATO also worked with the researchers in sharing their dataset on the spatial and temporal distribution of IAATO operator's activities, the single most comprehensive data set of any form of human activity in Antarctica. This allowed a better understanding and identification of the areas most likely to be at risk. 
  • The probability of seed transport to the region is highest for the Antarctic Peninsula, followed by the Ross Sea region. This reflects the concentrations of most human activity – both scientific and tourist-related – and coincides with large tracts of ice-free ground).
  • Roughly half of the vascular plant seeds reaching the Antarctic are from environments – e.g. Arctic, sub-Antarctic, alpine – that include species capable of surviving the conditions likely to be encountered in the areas of Antarctica most commonly visited. 

Aware of the potential for visitors to transmit non-native species, IAATO began developing procedures to be followed association-wide as early as 1999, later sponsoring a study to find out what procedures and which biocides would be the most effective at preventing any introductions.* Regularly reviewed and updated, these procedures have become a recognized cornerstone of IAATO members' commitment to practice environmentally responsible tourism to the Antarctic, and in many respects have lead the way amongst the whole Antarctic community.

One of the strengths of IAATO is its flexibility and commitment in adopting new guidelines and filling gaps in procedures. During the past several years, for instance, IAATO has been able to effectively incorporate findings and recommendations presented at annual ATCM meetings into its own standard operating practices. A good example of this in recent years has been the use by IAATO operators of Don't Pack a Pest pamphlets with their passengers. The pamphlets are available in English, French, Spanish, German and Chinese.

Most recently, the implications of the Chown study were discussed at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM 35), held in Hobart, Australia in June 2012. There, the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) agreed to develop a surveillance strategy for areas at high risk of non-native species establishment, as identified in the International Polar Year "Aliens in Antarctica" project.

IAATO indicated at ATCM 35 that it would encourage surveillance for non-native species by its operators, and noted it had launched a communications campaign in 2011 directed at field staff, identified in the study as a significant vector of seed transport. While tourists generally bring new gear to Antarctica and test out clean, the expedition leaders, field staff and Zodiac drivers often use the same boots, outerwear and equipment in other parts of the world.

IAATO Members are fully cognizant that they have a big responsibility to ensure their field staffs and Antarctic travelers take inspection and mitigation procedures very seriously when it comes to the inadvertent introduction of non-native species. This is one of the building blocks of what Antarctic conservation is all about, and the constructive role that tourism can play.

* Identification of an Agent Suitable for Disinfecting Boots of Visitors to the Antarctic, Polar Record, volume 41, number 216, January 2005, pages 39-45. C.H. Curry, J.S. McCarthy, H.M. Darragh, R.A. Wake, S.E. Churchill, A.M. Robins and R.J. Lowen.