The historical isolation of the Antarctic continent has protected it, to a certain degree, from the potentially harmful effects of human activities. The commencement and increase of a human presence in the region has brought growing awareness of its scientific and environmental importance and placed pressure on scientific and environmental values.
These values benefit from the general protections afforded by the Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol. These instruments prohibit the use of nuclear weapons, the dumping of nuclear wastes, military action and mineral resource extraction. In addition, all proposed activities must undergo prior environmental impact assessment, there are strict protective measures for all native flora and fauna, and requirements for the management and removal of current and past wastes. Indeed, the Protocol designates the entire Antarctic Treaty Area (the area south of 60 degrees South latitude) as a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’.
The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties have determined, nevertheless, that some areas of the Antarctic warrant additional protection due to the values they contain or the risks of human impacts on these values. Consequently, since 1964 there has been some form of Antarctic Protected Area system. The current protected area framework is established under Annex V to the Protocol (Area Protection and Management), which entered into force on 24 May 2002.
Annex V provides for the designation of areas within the Antarctic Treaty area, including any marine areas, as an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA). Entry to an ASPA is prohibited without a permit, and activities must be conducted in accordance with the Management Plan for the area.
ASPAs may be designated to protect outstanding environmental, scientific, historic, aesthetic or wilderness values, any combination of those values, or ongoing or planned scientific research. It is envisaged in Annex V that a series of ASPAs will be identified, within a ‘systematic environmental-geographical framework’ (SEGF), that includes:
a. areas kept inviolate from human interference so that future comparisons may be possible with localities that have been affected by human activities;
b. representative examples of major terrestrial, including glacial and aquatic, ecosystems and marine ecosystems;
c. areas with important or unusual assemblages of species, including major colonies of breeding native birds or mammals;
d. the type locality or only known habitat of any species;
e. areas of particular interest to ongoing or planned scientific research;
f. examples of outstanding geological, glaciological or geomorphological features;
g. areas of outstanding aesthetic and wilderness value;
h.sites or monuments of recognised historic value; and
i. such other areas as may be appropriate to protect environmental, scientific, historic, aesthetic or wilderness values, any combination of those values, or ongoing or planned scientific research.
Annex V also provides that any area, including any marine area, where activities are being conducted or may in the future be conducted, may be designated as an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) to assist in the planning and co-ordination of activities, avoid possible conflicts, improve co-operation between Parties or minimize environmental impacts. ASMAs may include areas where activities pose risks of mutual interference or cumulative environmental impacts, and sites or monuments of recognised historic value. ASMAs can include ASPAs within their area.
Among other functions, the CEP is responsible for providing advice to the Antarctic Treaty Parties on the operation and further elaboration of the Antarctic protected area system. Since its first meeting in 1998, the CEP has devoted a significant part of its discussions to the subject of area protection and management in Antarctica. The CEP has adopted materials to guide the designation, management and inspection of ASPAs, including:
- Revised Guide to the Preparation of Management Plans for Antarctic Specially Protected Areas
- Guidelines for implementation of the Framework for Protected Areas set forth in Article 3, Annex V of the Environmental Protocol
- Checklist to assist in the inspection of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas and Antarctic Specially Managed Areas
No guidance has been adopted for the designation and management of ASMAs.
There are currently 73 ASPAs and 7 ASMAs. Information about these areas, including links to their Management Plans, is available from the Antarctic Protected Areas Database, maintained by the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat.
The CEP has expressed regularly its desire to move towards a more systematic approach to the further development of the Antarctic Protected Areas system. The 2008 ATCM agreed that the Environmental Domains Analysis for the Antarctic Continent (EDA) (1, See Figure 1) should be used consistently and in conjunction with other tools agreed within the Antarctic Treaty System as a dynamic model for the identification of areas that could be designated as ASPAs within the systematic environmental-geographical framework. The EDA classifies the Antarctic continent into 21 distinctive regions, based on eight spatially explicit data layers that describe abiotic aspects of the Antarctic environment.
The 2012 ATCM considered, similarly, that the Antarctic Conservation Biogeographic Regions (ACBRs) (2, See Figure 2) should be used, alongside the EDA and other agreed tools, as a dynamic model for the identification of areas that could be designated as ASPAs. The ACBRs are 15 biologically distinct ice-free regions, encompassing all ice-free ground within the Antarctic Treaty area, classified using the best available data on the distribution of biodiversity.