"Thick fogs, snow storms, intense cold, and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous, must be encountered; and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the inexpressibly horrid aspect of the country; a country doomed by Nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie buried in everlasting snow and ice."

This is how Captain James Cook described the South Sandwich Islands, after discovering them in January 1775. The islands lie 700 kilometres south of South Georgia, which he visited on the same expedition. Lying in the “screaming fifties” of the Southern Ocean, the South Sandwich Islands certainly have a forbidding aspect. A low-lying volcano at the northern end of Zavodovski Island vents billowing clouds of smoke into blue skies. The other islands resemble broken teeth jutting out from the ocean, black but capped with deep snow. They are the remains of volcanoes which have been pounded into jagged rock and rubble by waves, wind and ice.

Immediately to the west lies the South Sandwich Trench, one of the deepest parts of the ocean, where waters plumb more than 8,000 metres. Here, part of the South American tectonic plate is being driven below the South Sandwich plate. The tremendous pressures and temperatures melting the rock created the lava that forms the islands.

In 2010, I led a scientific expedition to document life around the deep-sea hot springs, or hydrothermal vents, lying on the East Scotia Ridge, west of the South Sandwich Islands. Chimneys on the seabed, 2000 metres deep, vent hot water at temperatures of up to 386 degrees Celsius. Yeti crabs, snails, barnacles and anemones crowd into these warm water oases. Every species we found was new to science. All of them derive their nutrition from bacteria, that in turn feed themselves by oxidising chemicals in the vent fluids. Elsewhere around these islands, we surveyed seamounts and other ecosystems teaming with deep-sea corals, ancient brachiopods and giant sea anemones, feeding off jellyfish that they snare as they drift past.

Antarctic fur seals. The species was nearly exterminated by hunting for the fur trade but recovery began in South Georgia in the 1930s. Now the islands host > 4 million, more than 95% of the global population.
Antarctic fur seals on South Georgia. The species was nearly exterminated by hunting for the fur trade but recovery began in the 1930s. Now the islands host more than 4 million, around 95% of the global population.
Image: Alex Rogers

The islands are a biodiversity hotspot. But they also boast some of the richest aquatic predator populations anywhere in the world. South Georgia hosts around 45% of the global breeding population of king penguins; 40% of that of grey-headed albatross; 50% of that of white-chinned petrels; and more than 85% of that of Antarctic prions, a small, beautiful blue and white bird that skims above the waves. There are also more than four million Antarctic fur seals, or 95% of the world’s breeding population. Cetaceans are returning to the islands’ waters in great numbers, following years of slaughter from industrial whaling. During that time, more than 175,000 whales were processed on South Georgia.

Zavodovski Island, despite being an active volcano, hosts the largest penguin colony in the world, with more than a million breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins. In terms of wildlife, these islands are arguably the most important of the UK’s overseas territories. They would undoubtedly qualify as a UNESCO World Heritage site, both in terms of their unique and abundant biology and their geology. But fears of inflaming a dispute with Argentina over their ownership have prevented their designation as one.

Our oceans are under severe pressure, both from global factors such as climate change and marine litter, and more localised problems such as overfishing, destructive fishing practices, pollution and invasive species. One of the best ways to help marine ecosystems recover and to protect biodiversity is by creating very large marine protected areas (VLMPAs). These are marine zones larger than 100,000 square kilometres, in which resource extraction such as fishing is prohibited, or restricted to very low levels.

Globally, countries have agreed to protect 10% of the oceans by 2020 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Thanks to the advent of VLMPAs, more than 7% of the global ocean is now under spatial conservation measures. Experts are now calling for 30% of the ocean to be protected by 2030. Larger protected areas confer much greater benefits than small areas, studies conclude. But in order to reach global marine protected area (MPA) coverage of 30%, nation states must protect the huge swathes of ocean that are under their national jurisdictions - those within 200 miles of a country’s coast - as well as areas beyond these coastal limits.

The UK government is looking to its overseas territories as potential VLMPAs. The UK has the fifth largest marine estate in the world, at over 6.8 million square kilometres. It has the opportunity to show strong leadership in marine protection. Its Blue-Belt Programme has already declared protected areas around the Pitcairn Islands and the British Indian Ocean territory, and has committed to declaring them around Ascension Island in 2019 and Tristan da Cunha in 2020. These initiatives are laudable, as long as the MPAs are fully protected as marine reserves or no take zones (areas where any direct human disturbance is prohibited).

But despite the government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands claiming their maritime zone is an MPA, they allow industrial fishing in 98% of its waters. Small-scale economics and regional politics are responsible. Licensing of fisheries for Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean seabass), krill and mackerel icefish bring in sufficient revenue to manage them, including surveillance and enforcement. Fisheries contribute the vast majority of the islands’ £5 million annual income - a sum that makes them a "micro-enterprise" in economic terms.

Politically, the fisheries around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are managed in close collaboration with the Convention for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the institution responsible for managing fisheries throughout the Southern Ocean. The licensing of the valuable toothfish fishery, in particular, and also that for krill, gives the UK a voice in CCAMLR and the means to influence fisheries and ocean management within the Southern Ocean. It also reinforces the UK’s sovereignty over the islands. Both the UK government and the regional government are concerned that a VLMPA around the South Sandwich Islands, or around the entire maritime zone including South Georgia, will reduce British influence in the region.

 Chinstrap penguins off the South Sandwich Islands. Zavodoski Island hosts the largest chinstrap colony - over a million breeding pairs.
Chinstrap penguins off the South Sandwich Islands. Zavodoski Island hosts the largest chinstrap colony - over a million breeding pairs.
Image: Alex Rogers

CCAMLR has been slow to respond to global calls for protected areas, mainly because of countries such as Russia and China opposing any restriction of fishing opportunities. Although the Ross Sea VLMPA was recently declared, much greater efforts are required to establish a network of MPAs that represent the many different ecosystems of the Southern Ocean. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are unique and always emerge as priorities in scientific analyses of areas that should be protected.

There are urgent reasons to act. Evidence suggests that warming of the Southern Ocean is driving krill populations south, back towards the Antarctic continent. Models suggest that this process will continue, and that a combination of fishing and climate-driven reductions in krill populations will place predator populations in the northern Scotia Sea and elsewhere in the sub-Antarctic under severe pressure in the coming century. But CCAMLR show little evidence of taking climate change into account when managing these fisheries.

The wildlife of these islands is simply too important, on a global scale, to gamble with for the sake of regional politics and a few million pounds every year. Degradation of the islands’ unique biodiversity and their thriving predator populations will be a loss to future generations. The UK government should be a leader in the progressive management of oceans. This is particularly true in organisations such as CCAMLR, in which a colonial approach to resource exploitation by some states has obstructed progress towards globally agreed priorities for marine protection. Urgent action is required to move the ocean from a state of decline to recovery. History will look favourably on those who took the brave first steps to ensure that a healthy ocean remains for our children.