July – August 2021
Following a horizon scanning exercise which identified marine invasive species as a key threat, the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) is excited to embark on a marine biosecurity project with the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI).
Marine invasive non-native species (INNS) travel beyond their natural range most often by sticking to the hulls of vessels or suspended in ballast water. This allows them to establish in places where they would naturally be prevented from reaching by virtue of distance and biogeographic conditions. They represent the most insidious threat to native biodiversity and cause damage through habitat disturbance, direct competition, predation, diseases, induced toxicity (harmful algal blooms) and genetic pollution. These ultimately disrupt ecosystem function and service and negatively impact economies. Marine INNS are considered ‘out of sight and out of mind’, despite estimates that current shipping traffic transports 10,000 different species between biogeographic regions in ballast water alone, which is just one of an expanding list of vectors representing growth in trans-oceanic trade and tourism.
The project titled ‘Safeguarding South Georgia’s Blue Belt: Marine invasives mitigation’ recently started in partnership between the SAERI and the GSGSSI. The project aims to increase awareness of marine invasive non-native species (INNS) and identify the potential risk they present for South Georgia and the South Atlantic region. The project will achieve this by reviewing and analysing the mechanisms and pathways by which potential marine INNS arrive, and develop risk assessments to mitigate the threat. It is hoped that stakeholder engagement and workshops will raise awareness of the issues and will help to inform and develop policies to protect the marine environment.
Delivering the project for SAERI is Dan Bayley, a marine ecologist and honorary senior research fellow with University College London. Dan brings a wealth of experience, having worked in the Falklands Islands, British Indian Ocean Territory, Philippines and Fiji.
The Chief Executive of the GSGSSI, Laura Sinclair Willis, is pleased to publish the Government’s Annual Report for 2020.
In publishing the report, Mrs Sinclair Willis said: “2020 was a year that truly demonstrated the Government’s commitment to upholding the highest standards of environmental stewardship, despite the myriad challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic. This year was one of creativity and innovation, with the team working tirelessly with stakeholders and partners to adapt to shifting global influences. I am delighted to publish a report detailing so many achievements in the face of so many unprecedented challenges.”
The report can be downloaded here.
Darwin Plus Initiative: Round 10, 2021/22
The Government is proud to promote and encourage science that contributes to developing and upholding best-practice environmental management and that supports the active management and good governance of the Territory.
We are therefore delighted by the announcement of the latest round of Darwin Initiative funding and welcome applications that will contribute to the broader aims of the Government.
The Government’s vision for the future of the South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and our priority work areas are clearly laid out in ‘Protect Sustain Inspire’, our recently published values-driven approach to the stewardship of SGSSI.
Further details here.
Stamp Release: Ecosystems In Recovery – Whales
The waters around South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands are safeguarded through a 1.24 million square kilometre Marine Protected Area (MPA). Biodiversity great and small is celebrated and conserved. However, this has not always been the case. During the 20th century over 170,000 whales were killed in South Georgia waters having an untold impact on the ecosystem as a whole. Whaling ended in South Georgia in the 1960s, but whales were rarely seen on this important feeding ground for the next 40 years.
More recently, anecdotal accounts indicated that whale populations were increasing and the ecosystem was recovering. Running from 2017-2021, a project to estimate the recovery status, abundance, diversity, health and habitat use of whales on their South Georgia feeding grounds was established. The South Georgia Wild Water Whales project was led by the British Antarctic Survey in collaboration with research experts around the world.
The project used a range of scientific approaches, including conducting visual and acoustic surveys of whales, collecting photo-identifications and skin samples for genetic identification, deploying transmitters on whales to track their movements, collecting samples of whale breath by drone, and measuring whale body condition using overhead images. The project also benefitted from the many citizen scientists who took photo-identifications of whales at South Georgia and submitted them to www.happywhale.com, a global repository of whale photographs which are regularly matched with researcher catalogues.
This series of stamps celebrates the recovery of whale populations around South Georgia and showcases some of the fantastic scientific research which is helping us to better understand, and further protect them.
55p – Southern right whale
South Georgia is thought to be a key summer feeding ground for the southern right whale. To examine how they use this feeding habitat, two southern right whales were tagged with transmitters in austral summer 2020, and their movements tracked by satellite for the following months. While one whale (a female, blue track) travelled to the ice edge during summer and autumn, the second animal (a male, green track) remained in South Georgia coastal waters for six months, mostly at the western edge of the island, migrating north from South Georgia towards warm waters in winter (July). These patterns help to highlight which areas are particularly important for feeding right whales and show individual contrasts between whales and their use of high latitude habitat over summer and autumn.
70p – Humpback whale
Over six hundred humpback whales were seen during a whale survey around South Georgia in 2020. These sightings are shown as red dots on the map, with the size of the dot indicating the size of the group. This information was used to predict areas of high humpback whale density around the island. High intensity purple shading indicates high densities of whales. Understanding the density and distribution of whales is important to enable us to manage human activities such as shipping that may pose a risk to whales.
80p – Antarctic blue whale
The underwater vocalisations of blue whales were recorded using sonobuoys: acoustic devices which enable whale calls to be detected and the direction they come from to be measured. These data were collected during expeditions to South Georgia in 2017, 2018 and 2020. The calls and their bearings were analysed to determine the likely locations of the whales, and these were plotted on a map. In 2017, vocalising blue whales were all detected in deep water, both to the southwest of the island and to the north of the island (shown in yellow). In 2018, blue whales were detected on the continental shelf off the northern coast (shown in green). In 2020, sonobuoys were deployed around the entire island of South Georgia. In this year, blue whales were detected to the west of South Georgia, near to Shag Rocks (shown in red), along the northern shelf, and to the southeast of the island. These acoustic data show blue whale detections around the island are increasing, this pattern is also reflected in the number of visual sightings of blue whales, which have been rising in recent years as populations recover from industrial whaling.
First Day Cover – Humpback whale key feeding habitats
Satellite-based tracking of humpback whales feeding in South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands waters was used to model their likely distribution within the MPA. By examining whale distribution between October and July over a 17-year period, these models show that humpback whales have particular hotspots over the South Sandwich Trench, to the west of the South Sandwich Islands, and immediately over the shelf of mainland South Georgia (yellow areas of high habitat use probability). Encouragingly, this shows that the current footprint of the MPA and its management measures afford a significant degree of protection of the feeding grounds of migratory humpback whales.
The Wild Water Whales project was funded by EU BEST, Darwin PLUS, South Georgia Heritage Trust, the Friends of South Georgia Island and the World Wildlife Fund, with logistical support from the Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. More project information can be found here: https://www.bas.ac.uk/project/south-georgia-right-whale-project/
(From British Antarctic Survey)
Scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS), and international collaborators have this week published the first detailed research on the sounds made by southern right whales on their high latitude feeding grounds at South Georgia.
The BAS South Georgia Wild Water Whales Project used acoustic listening devices to record and describe southern right whales’ call repertoire, directly linking their calls to visual sightings of the whales. In addition to describing southern right whale calls, the team compared their calls to those of the humpback whales they also recorded.
Lead author and whale ecologist, Dr Susannah Calderan from SAMS, explains:
“This is an important study. Telling the two species apart by their calls can be difficult, but is needed to enable acoustic recorders in the Southern Hemisphere to remotely monitor each species”.
The southern right whale vocalisations recorded by the team showed little variation in call type – they were either the characteristic “upcall”, a low frequency sound believed to be used by all age and sex classes as a contact call, or the high-intensity, broadband “gunshot” call, thought to primarily be part of mating behaviour. Southern right whale calls could be distinguished from those of humpback whales based on their frequency characteristics and duration.
The full article can be read at the British Antarctic Survey site here.
I started in my new role as South Georgia Government Officer (GO) on 21st June, flying 8,000 miles south to the Government’s main base at Government House in Stanley, Falkland Islands. This is a job like no other, as with only 2-3 GO’s on South Georgia at any one time, and being the Government’s sole representatives on the island, we have to wear many hats. Training involved police, coroner and registrar courses with experts in Stanley. There were also informative sessions on fisheries enforcement, local legislation, tourism, biosecurity and logistics. However, time in the main office was about more than just downloading as much information as possible. It also allowed me time to get to know the fabulous team who are based there and who I will work closely with despite being 800 miles away in South Georgia.
On Monday 26th July, I boarded the Fishery Patrol vessel, Pharos SG, and started the 5-day sail to King Edward Point (KEP). I have been fortunate enough to spend several years on South Georgia with the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), so arriving at KEP felt very much like coming home. Sailing into an ice covered bay and seeing the station’s red-roofed buildings nestled at the foot of Mount Duse was an overwhelmingly happy moment. Disembarking it was great to finally meet my fellow GO’s, Sam and Ben, as well as the overwintering BAS team of six, who made me feel instantly welcome.
Since then the past six weeks have been spent learning on the job. I have been out to board toothfish fishing vessels at sea, conducting CCAMLR inspections to ensure they are adhering to the regulations while fishing in our waters. I have spent three days hiking across a snowy pass to check on the condition of the hut at St. Andrews prior to the arrival of a camera crew who wanted to use it. I have spent time in the Post Office, doing stock checks and stamping philatelic mail for the avid collectors worldwide. I have had the privilege of doing a near-shore patrol on the Pharos SG, learning where the visitor landing sites are and checking for debris on beaches, allowing me to see more of South Georgia Island than I had ever expected. I have also spent a lot of time in the office, learning about the important paperwork that is required to keep things running smoothly.
The job so far has been interesting, despite the slow season with no krill fishery and an uncertain tourist season ahead of us. It has been made all the better by having a great team in the office to learn from, as well as an inclusive BAS team who have included us in their station training and a supportive crew on the Pharos SG. I am looking forward to challenges and successes of the next 5 months, as we transition into summer and the station fills with visiting scientists and the government building team.
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