“Country Clean-ups” at a sub-Antarctic Ramsar site

“Country Clean-ups” at a sub-Antarctic Ramsar site

28 September 2009

South Africa’s Prince Edward Islands in the southern Indian Ocean form the first sub-Antarctic Ramsar Site (No. 1688), designated on 22 May 2007. The island group of Marion and the smaller Prince Edward is a Strict Nature Reserve, the highest level of protection under South African legislation. Tourism is not allowed, and the only activities that take place are related to scientific research (including weather observations), conservation management, and their logistical support.

New conservation initiatives at the Prince Edwards include the announcement of the intention to declare a very large Marine Protected Area around the islands, that will include all of their territorial waters (extending 12 nautical miles) and parts of the 200-nm Excusive Economic Zone. A new management plan, to replace that of 1996, is nearing adoption. Lastly, South Africa has placed the island group on its Tentative List for the World Heritage Convention as a natural site.

Marion Island’s weather station was established in 1948 and over the last 60 years a certain amount of rubble and other litter has accumulated, such as at the sites of field huts, from discontinued or completed scientific experiments, and at an abortive hydro-electric scheme from the 1980s. In the last eight years or so, concerted efforts have been made during the four-week annual relief in April/May to clean up such sites, returning all collected items to South Africa. The rubble collected has been various in nature: sand and stone chips left over at a dam site, blown-about sheets of corrugated steel and aluminum, the remains of now-discontinued field toilets, embedded scaffolding pipes used as anchor poles, wire fencing used in the past as experimental cat exclosures (cats have now been exterminated on the island), and the remains of defunct radio repeater stations on the tops of two hills.

With no vehicles on the island, the general procedure followed has been for field workers (mainly scientists) to report newly-found items to the islands’ management committee as they find them (with positions by GPS) during the year, for later visits on foot by the clean-up team during the annual relief. Small and relatively light items are either carried  back to the weather station and added to its waste stream or taken to the nearest field hut (of nine on the island) where they are removed with hut waste during the annual relief. For heavier items, a helicopter with a cargo net or slung container  has been used to remove such disparate items as the remains of a long-abandoned field hut, a section of a wrecked yacht that had washed ashore, and large quantities of washed-up wooden planks that were littering a King Penguin colony in an unsightly manner.

Unglamorous work certainly, but one that is helping keep South Africa’s sub-Antarctic possessions relatively pristine. And from time to time items of historical interest are discovered, such as a likely sealer’s grave (left undisturbed) and bottles and peak markers dating from the time of occupation in the late 1940s. To date, a roughly-estimated 12 tonnes of material collected away from the weather station has been removed from the island.

The support of the many volunteers (some who have requested to carry unexpectedly heavy loads) over the years and of the South African National Antarctic Programme of the Department of Environmental Affairs is gratefully acknowledged.

John Cooper, Co-opted Member, Prince Edward Islands Management Committee

Drift wood collected from a King Penguin colony, awaiting removal by helicopter, April 2008

Removing a well-embedded scaffolding pole from a mire at Marion Island, April 2009

The new weather station at Transvaal Cove, Marion Island with the SANAP supply ship, the S.A. Agulhas, in the background, April 2008