Untangling unexpected terrestrial conservation challenges arising from the historical human exploitation of marine mammals in the Atlantic sector of the Southern Ocean
Intensive human exploitation of the Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) in its primary population centre on sub-Antarctic South Georgia, as well as on other sub-Antarctic islands and parts of the South Shetland Islands, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries rapidly brought populations to the brink of extinction. The species has now recovered throughout its original distribution. Non-breeding and yearling seals, almost entirely males, from the South Georgia population now disperse in the summer months far more widely and in higher numbers than there is evidence for taking place in the pre-exploitation era. Large numbers now haul out in coastal terrestrial habitats in the South Orkney Islands and also along the north-east and west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula to at least Marguerite Bay. In these previously less- or non-visited areas, the seals cause levels of damage likely never to have been experienced previously to fragile terrestrial habitats through trampling and over-fertilisation, as well as eutrophication of sensitive freshwater ecosystems. This increased area of summer impact is likely to have further synergies with aspects of regional climate change, including reduction in extent and duration of sea ice permitting seals access farther south, and changes in krill abundance and distribution. The extent and conservation value of terrestrial habitats and biodiversity now threatened by fur seal distribution expansion, and the multiple anthropogenic factors acting in synergy both historically and to the present day, present a new and as yet unaddressed challenge to the agencies charged with ensuring the protection and conservation of Antarctica’s unique ecosystems.
Authors: Convey, Peter ORCID record for Peter Convey, Hughes, Kevin A. ORCID record for Kevin A. Hughes