The Southern Ocean around Antarctica is the most isolated marine environment on Earth. Antarctica’s native species have been isolated for the last 15-30 million years. As a result, wildlife there has not evolved the ability to tolerate the presence of many groups of species.
New research by the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey has traced the global movements of all the ships entering Antarctic water and has found that Antarctica is connected to all regions of the globe via ship activity to an extent much greater than previously thought. Fishing, tourism, research, and supply ships are exposing Antarctica to invasive, non-native species that threaten the existing ecosystems.
In all, the research identified over 1,500 ports with links to Antarctica. From all these places, non-native species including mussels, barnacles, crabs, and algae attach themselves to ships’ hulls. The process is known as biofouling.
The greatest concern is the movement of species from pole to pole. These species are already cold-adapted. They may come on tourist or research vessels that spend the northern hemisphere summer in the Arctic before traveling south for the Antarctic summer season.
Mussels have no competitors in Antarctica should they be accidentally introduced. Shallow water crabs would introduce a new form of predation that Antarctic animals have never encountered before.
Current biosecurity measures to protect Antarctica, such as cleaning ships’ hulls, focus on a small group of so-called gateway ports. The new findings indicate that these measures need to be expanded to protect Antarctic waters from non-native species.
Photo, posted April 12, 2016, courtesy of NOAA’s National Ocean Service via Flickr.