National and international frameworks

A suite of international agreements, collectively known as the Antarctic Treaty System, governs Antarctica, and is designed to take into account the characteristics and environmental challenges of the Antarctic region. These agreements establish Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science. Environmental protection and conservation of marine living resources are key objectives. Parties to these agreements fulfil their obligations through national legislation and supporting administrative arrangements, and environmental management arrangements for activities in Antarctica conducted by their nationals. Under the Environmental Protocol to the treaty, environmental impact assessments are required for all human activities in Antarctica, including tourism.

The Australian Government’s 2016 Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan (Australian Antarctic Programme 2016) identifies that one of Australia’s key national interests in Antarctica is to protect the Antarctic environment. Australia promotes best practice in environmental stewardship across all aspects of the Australian Antarctic Program. Australia implements and manages practical ways to minimise the effects of activities in Antarctica, and addresses past impacts by cleaning up former work and waste disposal sites.

Australia works in close collaboration with other nations active in the region, and plays a leading role in international forums, such as the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, its Committee for Environmental Protection, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels.

Australia also plays a significant role in the Southern Ocean in combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and in conserving albatross and petrel species across their extensive range in these higher latitudes. Australia conducts and supports science to inform the responsible management and protection of Antarctica.

Australian legislation and guidance

Australia’s international obligations arising from the agreements of the Antarctic Treaty System come into effect through domestic law. The primary pieces of Australian legislation are:

  • Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980 – gives effect to the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which includes environmental protection principles, including biosecurity, and requirements for all activities in the Antarctic Treaty area
  • Antarctic Marine Living Resources Conservation Act 1981 – implements the requirements arising from the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

Subantarctic islands

Australia’s subantarctic islands are located outside the Antarctic Treaty area. The Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) manages the Territory of Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve on behalf of the Australian Government. Macquarie Island and nearby islets are part of the state of Tasmania and are managed by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

The Heard Island and McDonald Islands Act 1953 provides a legal regime for Heard Island and McDonald Islands. Under this Act, the Environment Protection and Management Ordinance 1987 provides for the protection of the environment and controls access to the territory. The territory is also a World Heritage site, located within a Commonwealth Reserve proclaimed under and protected by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). All activities in the territory must be undertaken in accordance with the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve management plan 2014–24 (Australian Antarctic Division 2014).

Macquarie Island is also a World Heritage site. The Tasmanian Government manages the Macquarie Island Commonwealth Marine Reserve adjacent to the Macquarie Island Nature Reserve. The marine reserve is subject to the EPBC Act, and activities in the reserve are governed by the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network management plan 2013–23 (Australian Government Director of National Parks 2013).

All albatross and petrel species listed under the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) that are native to Australia, including the endemic shy albatross, are listed migratory species under the EPBC Act. The listed threatened species of albatrosses and petrels under the legislation are subject to a national recovery plan. The draft of the third National recovery plan for albatrosses and petrels (2021) was open for public comment until 27 August 2021, and is currently being evaluated (DAWE 2021a). When adopted, it will replace the plan adopted in 2011.

Station management and training

As lead agency for Australia’s Antarctic program, the AAD ensures that everyone involved in the program is aware of their personal responsibilities to care for the environment. When appointed, all expeditioners must agree to abide by a code of personal behaviour that emphasises a commitment to Australia’s environmental management responsibilities. Induction and training of new employees includes an introduction to relevant Australian laws and the AAD’s approach to environmental issues.

At Australia’s Antarctic and subantarctic stations, the station leader is responsible on the ground for environmental management, including implementation of policies, standard operating procedures and management decisions from AAD; the station environment committee, a station environmental officer and a station waste-management officer assist the station leader in this task. However, everybody is responsible for environmental protection. A web-based reporting system allows expedition members to submit information or suggestions on environmental issues.

Recently, the AAD identified and implemented improvements to the biosecurity system, such as improved cargo biosecurity procedures, checklists, training and supplier declarations. The Environmental Management System enables continued improvement of biosecurity, and supports ongoing monitoring and reporting (Australian Antarctic Program 2019).

Protected areas

Under the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty, all of Antarctica has a high level of environmental protection. However, certain areas receive a higher level of protection if they contain outstanding environmental, scientific, historical, aesthetic or wilderness values (or any combination thereof).

Antarctic Specially Protected Areas

Certain areas are designated as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) to protect values of outstanding significance. Entry to an ASPA requires a permit issued by a relevant national competent authority, and activities must be conducted in accordance with a management plan that has been agreed by the Committee for Environmental Protection and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. Australia has lead management responsibility for 10 ASPAs in East Antarctica, and jointly manages 2 ASPAs with other nations.

Protected areas are one important means of achieving the objectives of the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. Although the Environmental Protocol provides a high level of protection for all of Antarctica, the Antarctic Treaty parties are pursuing efforts to further develop the network of ASPAs, because of increasing pressures from climate change and intensifying human activities. Based on a systematic approach, expanding the network would ensure that it is representative of the continent’s biodiversity and other values. At the same time, effective management systems with set conservation objectives are important to increase the resilience of the ASPA network (Coetzee et al. 2017).

Marine protected areas

The Southern Ocean region is unique in its biodiversity. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are widely considered an important tool for the management of the great southern region and its conservation. All activities, including use of resources in the Southern Ocean, have been managed effectively under the Antarctic Treaty System.

From the beginning, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) recognised the importance of ecosystem-based management and the precautionary principle. CCAMLR was the first international organisation to endorse the recommendations by the United Nations World Summit in 2002 to develop a network of comprehensive and representative MPAs in the Southern Ocean (CCAMLR 2011). CCAMLR considers and adopts a range of conservation measures, including those that protect the general marine environment, species and communities, and those that manage commercial fishing activities. MPAs are part of this approach. In 2011, CCAMLR adopted Conservation Measure 91-04, which sets out the ‘General framework for the establishment of CCAMLR marine protected areas’. Major goals are the establishment of a network of MPAs representative of biodiversity, habitats and marine ecosystems; and the protection of key ecosystem processes and critical features to maintain ecosystem resilience or enable adaptation to climate change (CCAMLR 2011).

Although the aim to have a representative network of MPAs in place by 2012 was not achieved, 2 MPAs have been established. The first, set up in 2009, was the South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf Marine Protected Area, the first MPA declared in international waters. In CCAMLR Subarea 48.2, an area of around 94,000 square kilometres (km2) is now protected, which includes important foraging areas for penguins, a range of flying seabirds and marine mammals, as well as a species-rich benthic region (Trathan & Grant 2020). In 2016, CCAMLR members reached consensus on declaring a second MPA in the Ross Sea region (CCAMLR 2016) that is currently the world’s largest MPA, covering 1.55 million km2 (MFAT n.d.).

Southern Ocean MPAs also exist in national waters around Heard Island and McDonald Islands (Australia), the Kerguelen Islands and the Crozet Islands (France), and the Prince Edward Islands (South Africa).

Currently, 3 further MPAs have been proposed and are still being negotiated: the Weddell Sea MPA, which would cover 4.2 million km2 (Teschke et al. 2021); an MPA in East Antarctica comprising 3 areas collectively covering about 1 million km2; and an MPA in the region of the western Antarctic Peninsula (Hogg et al. 2020).

Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

The conservation of Antarctic marine living resources is subject to the regulations imposed under the CCAMLR. This convention came into force in 1982 as part of the Antarctic Treaty System. CCAMLR comprises 25 member states and the European Union. A further 10 countries have agreed to the terms of the convention. Article I of the convention defines its area of operation as ‘the area south of 60° South latitude and the area between that latitude and the Antarctic Convergence which form part of the Antarctic marine ecosystem’ (UN 1980). The commission manages about 10% of the world’s oceans (Brooks 2013).

Antarctic Treaty parties established the convention because of a growing concern that an increase in krill catches in the Southern Ocean could have a serious effect on populations of krill and other marine life, particularly birds, seals and fish, all of which depend on krill for food (see Krill fishing).

The objective of the convention is the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources. CCAMLR has applied an ecosystem-based management system to ensure that fisheries are sustainable, and that the needs of dependent predators and ecosystems are considered. CCAMLR was the first international convention applying the ecosystem-based approach to its fisheries management strategy (Arnaudo 2005). This sets CCAMLR apart from regional fishery management organisations, which largely focus on the management and production of harvested species and often deal with single species only.

CCAMLR considers the needs of krill-dependent predators and sets conservative catch limits to safeguard their requirements. Since several krill-dependent predators act as indicators of the health of the Southern Ocean ecosystem, CCAMLR developed the Ecosystem Monitoring Program ‘to detect and record significant changes in critical components of the ecosystem to serve as a basis for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources’ (CCAMLR 1984). As part of the precautionary approach, CCAMLR establishes conservation and management measures to maintain populations of harvested species at levels that ensure stable recruitment.

CCAMLR continues to work on achieving consensus among party members to achieve its objectives to protect the Antarctic environment, habitats, species and ecological processes, and increase resilience to climate change (CCAMLR 2011). CCAMLR also encourages national programs operating in Antarctica to undertake targeted fisheries-related research to ensure that there is constant recruitment into populations of target species, but also provide for the needs of dependent species (Constable 2002).

Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels

The Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (ACAP) aims to achieve and maintain a favourable conservation status for albatrosses and petrels. This agreement came into force in 2004, as part of the framework of international agreements under the auspices of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals. ACAP applies to the species listed in Annex 1 to the agreement: currently all 22 of the world’s albatross species and 9 petrel species (ACAP 2020b).

ACAP has 13 member states, including Australia. The agreement enhances cooperation and builds capacity among its member states, and works closely with regional fisheries and conservation bodies (ACAP 2021a).

Australia and other concerned nations established the agreement because of a growing concern about rapid decreases in global albatross and petrel populations. These decreases were due to threats at sea, mainly associated with interactions with fishing gear, and threats on land affecting breeding sites, including human disturbance, predation and habitat damage by invasive species.

ACAP applies the precautionary approach when developing measures to enhance the conservation status of these species. ACAP promotes best and improving practices in seabird bycatch mitigation in fisheries, and provides guidelines for addressing threats affecting albatross and petrel breeding sites. It advocates the implementation of effective technologies and techniques to avoid or minimise the incidental catch of seabirds during fishing operations. It also promotes the monitoring of the degree and extent of seabird mortalities in global fisheries (ACAP 2021b).

ACAP has established World Albatross Day, celebrated on 19 June each year (the date when the agreement opened for signature in 2001). This initiative helps to raise public awareness and understanding about albatross conservation. Each year, ACAP selects a theme to give particular attention to a conservation concern that affects albatrosses. In 2021, the theme for World Albatross Day is ‘Ensuring albatross-friendly fisheries’. It will highlight some of the successful initiatives taken in coastal state and high-seas fisheries to reduce albatross bycatch (ACAP 2020a).

International Whaling Commission

In the 20th century, commercial whaling operations killed more than 2 million whales in the Southern Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Ocean. Many populations were reduced to about 1% of their previous size (Clapham & Scott Baker 2018). Following the recognition that many populations of large whales were near to extinction, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) and its regulatory body, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), were established to regulate whaling activities in 1946. However, most whale populations continued to decline for the next few decades.

Finally, in 1986, the IWC set all commercial catch limits to zero, and established the ‘moratorium’ on commercial whaling that is still in place today. In 1994, the IWC created the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary (SOWS), which excludes all commercial whaling from an area of about 50 million km2. However, the moratorium on commercial whaling and the SOWS do not prohibit whaling under Article VIII of the ICRW.

Since 1946, the IWC has grown from 15 to 88 member governments. It continues to manage whaling activities but increasingly works to address other human impacts on whale and dolphin populations, such as fisheries bycatch, entanglement, noise and pollution.