South Georgia Celebrates Possession Day 2020

245 years ago on 17th January, James Cook, after 3 years at sea, took possession of South Georgia and claimed the land for His Britannic Majesty, King George the Third. On what must have been a routine summer’s day in the South West Atlantic, the explorer described what he had discovered as a ‘land doomed by nature to perpetual frigidness’.

Cook noted in his journal the abundance of both seals and whales around South Georgia, an observation that helped encourage entrepreneurs to cash in on a growing global demand for pelts and oil. The sealers came in the 1780’s, the whalers in the early 1900’s. Over 175,000 whales were caught before the last station closed in 1966. However, this unrestrained exploitation also triggered scientific research; notably the Discovery Investigations carried out between 1925 and 1951. The work was seminal, making clear the unsustainable nature of over-exploitation. This in turn led to tighter industry regulation.

Today scientific endeavour and environmental protection are at the very core of what happens on South Georgia. Many contribute to that outcome, building on the work of their predecessors. The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Island (GSGSSI) is small and widespread – staff are based not only on South Georgia at King Edward Point, but also at offices in the Falkland Islands, Cambridge and the outer-Hebrides in the UK. Despite this geographic range, all members of the team are deeply dedicated to working together to responsibly manage the territory. GSGSSI is however acutely aware that collaboration with our partners is vital to achieve the goals of the Government.

There have been many achievements to celebrate. The significant habitat restoration projects of the last decade to remove reindeer and rodents were major steps in seeking a return to the native flora and fauna that Cook would have observed. Whilst perhaps not as headline grabbing, the removal of non-native plants by our delivery partners Indigena is an important programme and one that will continue.

Protecting what has been achieved is understandably a key objective for Government. A stowaway reindeer should be fairly easy to spot, but this cannot be said so nonchalantly for other species. It is for that reason GSGSSI has sought out global leaders in biosecurity and worked in partnership with them to deliver a rodent detector dog programme. Based in the Falkland Islands and checking vessels bound for South Georgia, Sammy and his handler Naomi Baxter provide the rodent free assurance needed for ships travelling to the territory. GSGSSI are also delighted to be collaborating with the Falkland Islands Government (FIG) on how the evolving capability may be of use to the Falklands.

Whilst James Cook may have been the first tourist to land on South Georgia all those years ago, in the past year alone the island welcomed 10,337 guests and 7,757 staff from 67 countries. GSGSSI are working with the International Association of Antarctica Tourist Operators (IAATO) in seeking to determine how best to manage a growing demand to visit the islands in a manner that is consistent with maintaining high standards of environmental protection and animal welfare. The Government seeks to deepen the relationship with IAATO still further, a development that will hopefully complement the Falkland’s ambition to become an Antarctic Gateway.

Working with colleagues from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and other research organisations is vital in furthering the scientific understanding of the territory and the animals that call it home. Their studies and analysis enable the evidence-based decision making which is fundamental to the management of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

GSGSSI also acknowledges the fishing companies who are licensed to operate in the South Georgia Maritime Zone. They make a critical contribution to both scientific research and protection of the territory.

The flag ship of that protection, quite literarily, is the MV Pharos. This Fisheries Patrol Vessel is leased from a Falkland Island company, with many of her crew from the Islands. They do an incredible job and the support the crew provided to the sad events surrounding the search for the Chilean C130 lost just before Christmas brought deserved credit to all involved. That includes the personnel of the British Forces South Atlantic Islands (BFSAI), for whose efforts GSGSSI are always grateful.

Possession Day is a time to look back at the history of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands from that significant date in 1775, to reflect on the work done thus far, and to thank everyone who contributes to the stewardship of the islands. It is also an opportunity to look to the future. 2020 will see the development of GSGSSI’s new 5-year strategy and input from stakeholders and partners will help shape the decisions the Government needs to make on the sustainable and responsible management of this unique territory.