Introduced species a worry for Antarctica

SARAH-JANE O'CONNOR
Last updated 05:00 16/01/2014

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Grass and moths might not leap to mind when you think about Antarctica, but exotic species are a biosecurity concern for the southern continent, a British researcher says.

Professor Pete Convey, of the British Antarctic Survey, is visiting Christchurch on a University of Canterbury Erskine fellowship.

Several years ago, Convey was involved in a project tallying up the introduced species in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands.

At that point, 200 introduced species were catalogued, though more have been recorded since, including several species of grass that have established.

Of these, Convey said 10 per cent were brought accidentally or deliberately by humans, vastly outnumbering those arriving naturally.

"Natural colonisation is very difficult," he said. However, "things" did get there occasionally.

"For every one that gets there naturally, we brought 100."

The final continent to be visited by humans, Antarctica has largely avoided the influx of invasive species brought along by mankind.

"We have basically made a mess of everything else," Convey said

"If you get the right protective measures in place, we are actually looking at protecting an entire continent."

Convey said New Zealand's approach to Antarctic biosecurity was looked to as a model for other countries.

Compared to elsewhere, "for New Zealand, the whole issue of biosecurity has a much bigger profile", he said.

A lot of procedures in place were "common sense", such as checking any clothing for plant seeds. "It's not rocket science, but it's amazing how few countries do it rigorously."

Antarctica New Zealand environmental manager Dr Neil Gilbert said that 50 years ago the continent would not have been seen as a problem spot for invasive species. An increasing human presence brought the hangers-on.

Gilbert chaired the Committee for Environmental Protection from 2006 to 2010, which sets out environmental standards for the continent. Non-native species were one of the highest concerns for the committee.

Gilbert said Antarctica New Zealand worked to ensure stowaways were not inadvertently carried south, although some still slipped through.

Recently, a live moth was found at Scott Base, but Gilbert said the message seemed to get through to people that "the risk is real".

With vigilance, Gilbert thought future introductions could be limited.

Although the majority of introductions had occurred on the sub-Antarctic islands, climate change could provide in-roads for more species to establish on the continent.

As climate change warmed parts of Antarctica, and dried up other parts, non-native species could take advantage of the more favourable conditions and become invasive.

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- © Fairfax NZ News

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