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Elephant Seal
Photo Credit: Christine Hush
An elephant seal pokes its head out of the water near Palmer Station. The USAP has proposed special environmental protections for a roughly 2,700-square-kilometer area near Palmer to help safeguard the marine life and delicate ecosystem.

Managed protection

ASMA designation proposed for Palmer Station area; Dry Valleys ASMA under review

Researchers studying the effects of climate change around the Antarctic Peninsula have data stretching back nearly 35 years. To protect the fragile ecosystem and the integrity of this natural laboratory, the U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) has proposed creating an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) for the marine-based region.

The USAP proposed the SW Anvers Island/Palmer Basin ASMA at the 2007 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), according to Nathan Biletnikoff, Raytheon Polar Services (RPS) environmental engineering department manager. The ATCM is an annual meeting of nations that have agreed to preserve Antarctica for peaceful purposes. 

“It was received very well at last year’s meeting, and we are hoping it will be finalized and ratified this year,” he said. RPS is the primary contractor that handles most of the logistics for the USAP, which is managed by the National Science Foundation.

Biletnikoff said the impetus behind the designation is the level of human activity in the area, mainly from science operations and tourism. “There is significant environmental risk,” he said. “[We] really wanted to increase the protection around there because of the [diversity] of species in that area.”

The ASMA would help protect a number of islands and a large area of open water, roughly 2,700-square kilometers, by establishing a management plan that would create guidelines for science, tourism and other activities within its boundaries.

“It’s quite big,” Biletnikoff said of the proposed ASMA.

USAP scientists who work on a program called the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research (PAL LTER) project, a multi-disciplinary study of marine ecosystem dynamics near Palmer Station, have assisted the environmental department in defining the area and scientific values that should be protected.

“The main impact that we’ve seen without the protection is on the bird populations,” said Hugh Ducklow, the principal investigator for the PAL LTER and co-director of The Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. He said tourism is a concern, but so are research activities undertaken in the absence of coordination.

Palmer ASMA Map
Photo Credit: RPS Environmental Department
The proposed boundary of the Palmer ASMA.
Nate Biletnikoff and Rod Downey
Photo Credit: Kevin Pettway
RPS Environmental Manager Nate Biletnikoff, left, and Rod Downey, environmental officer for the British Antarctic Survey, examine a piece of iron ore in a special features location called Battleship Promontory in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Each country decides its own penalties for breaking the ASMA rules, which fall under the Antarctic Conservation Act. As of 2004, the penalty under the United States is up to one year in prison and an $11,000 fine.

The lack of guidelines particularly affects the work of Bill Fraser, a co-investigator on the PAL LTER who oversees the seabird component of the research. “The weight of human activities is now at the point where we really needed to think more seriously about what needs more protection and what could be excluded,” he said. “The ASMA was primarily motivated by that need.”

Fraser said there have been instances of helicopters landing on islands in the proposed Palmer ASMA and “literally destroying entire breeding populations of birds.”

Like an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA), an ASMA provides guidelines for managing areas of special environmental or historical interest. However, a permit is not required for entry into an ASMA as it is in into an ASPA.

The proposed ASMA would encompass two current ASPAs near Palmer Station — Litchfield Island and Biscoe Point. Litchfield is a small island with a rich diversity of fauna, and serves as a breeding ground for six different species of birds. Two native flowering plants, Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort, grow on Biscoe Point.

Fraser said the ASMA would be an important tool for scientists to coordinate their work, so no one disrupts another’s research. However, he said the additional protections offered by an ASPA designation might be useful in the future for some other special sites.

“Just off the top of my head, I can think of a couple of areas that are quite unique and probably deserve a little bit more protection than they are getting now,” he said. For instance, Fraser noted that Dream Island, about 13 kilometers north of Palmer Station, is an important breeding ground for different penguin species.

Biletnikoff said he expects the treaty nations to adopt the Palmer ASMA management plan at this year’s June meeting in Kiev, Ukraine. However, he said treaty members could table the issue for another year, which they did with the Amundsen-Scott South Pole ASMA before ratifying it last year.

Currently, there are six ASMA sites around Antarctica, including a 15,000-square-kilometer swath in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The U.S. and New Zealand Antarctic programs are updating that ASMA management plan for review by treaty nations next year.

Kevin Pettway, with the RPS environmental department, said work began this past season on the Dry Valleys ASMA because of the time involved in updating the management plan for review in 2009. Treaty nations review ASMA management plans every five years. One of the key tasks is improving maps that identify special zones within the ASMA.

“Hopefully, the updates we’re making to the ASMA will help scientists know where the special features are, where the facility zone boundaries are,” Pettway said. “We’re actually trying to put topography on a lot of them. … These maps will hopefully be much more user friendly. We couldn’t have done the work without surveyors Jeff Scanniello and Tighe Urelius.”

The ASMA management plan consists of three types of zones within the Dry Valleys: facilities zones, special features and tourism zones. The facilities zones are areas with semi-permanent human activity, such as fixed field camps. Special features zones are areas of high scientific value where research and operations are limited. Tourist zones, as the name implies, dictate tourism activities in Taylor Valley near the Canada Glacier.

The Dry Valleys was the first of two areas on the continent approved for ASMA status by the Antarctic Treaty members in 2004 under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. The U.S. and New Zealand Antarctic programs jointly submitted the proposal. The other area granted ASMA status in 2004 was an Australian historic site at Cape Denison.   

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