Invasive species threaten the purity of Antarctica

Species from around the world ‘hitchhiking’ on ships are threatening Antarctica’s pristine marine ecosystem, according to new research.

The conclusion is drawn from a study of research, fishing and tourist vessels that regularly visit the otherwise isolated protected region.

The study found that ships – usually fishing or tourist vessels – from 1,500 ports around the world visit Antarctica. “These ships travel all over the world,” explained lead researcher Arlie McCarthy from the University of Cambridge.

Invasive species threaten Antarctica (Colin Drake).

“That means almost anywhere could be a potential source of invasive species.” These non-native species, she explained, “can completely change an ecosystem.” “They can create entirely new habitats that would make it harder for these incredible Antarctic animals to find their own place to call home.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stresses the need for stricter measures to ensure that ships do not bring in species that could disturb Antarctica’s fragile habitats.

The research team, from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Cambridge, used satellite data and international maritime databases to determine the weight of Antarctic traffic – and the origin of these vessels.

“What was really surprising was that they don’t have just one home base that they come and go to,” Ms McCarthy said. Instead, the global movement of ships connects otherwise isolated parts of Antarctica to more than 1,500 ports around the world.

Reference

McCarthy AH, Peck LS and Aldridge DC. 2022. Maritime traffic connects Antarctica’s fragile coasts to global ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2110303118

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