Penguins in South Georgia
 

Campaign

Protecting the region of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands with a South Atlantic Marine Wildlife Sanctuary, not only safeguards a wild, productive ecosystem, but supports our entire planet’s ability to regulate itself.

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands hold great biological significance with its high density of life that rivals that of the African plains.

Isolated by over a thousand kilometers of open ocean in every direction lies what could be the largest concentration of marine species. Wild, remote, and uninhabited, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands house a remarkable ensemble of life. The volcanic South Sandwich Islands and heavily ice-covered South Georgia island lie sequestered in the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,400 km east of Falkland Island and 1,700 km from the southern tip of South America.

Here, bountiful life congregates – largely due to the amount of krill in the area. Considered to have the greatest biomass of any non-domesticated animal on Earth, it attracts one of the most biodiverse populations of seabirds and marine mammals on Earth. The immense biomass of krill populations feeds hundreds of species and millions of animals, including several species of whales and the world’s largest colony of chinstrap penguins with over one million individuals. Alongside the many seabird species flies the world’s only sub-Antarctic songbird, the South Georgia pipit. Additionally, roughly 4 million and over 95% of our planet’s Antarctic fur seals reside in the region.

However, these krill populations were also being largely harvested by industrial fishing fleets, disrupting the food chain for all the wildlife that rely on krill for its own survival.

Protecting krill from industrial fishing, for example, supports the global ocean’s food chain from the bottom up. Migratory cetaceans spread nutrients throughout the global ocean and support the growth of primary producers, such as marine plants, which are the basis of the food chain. If industrial fishing disrupts the krill stocks, it’s not only the individual whales who experience the negative effects. A chain reaction of food availability ripples throughout our ocean in each whale’s absence.

This delicate balance could remain sound with the implementation and expansion of marine protected areas (MPA’s),

“I can tell you that after six weeks of photographic in [South Georgia] every day from dark to dark, both above and below water, I still did not did not scratch the surface of this remarkable place.”

Paul Nicklen
Co-Founder & Lead Storyteller
South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands overview
South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands history
South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands ecosystem and why its one of the most important ecosystems on our planet

The mission

albatross swimming along the coastline of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

Photographing Fur Seals and Elephant seals underwater at the South End of South Georgia at Cooper Island and Larsen Harbour.

To protect the barren habitat and its fauna, we focused on increasing protections for the region with a marine protected area expansion and establishment of a wildlife sanctuary. This conservation endeavor would not only safeguard a wild, productive ecosystem, but also support our entire planet’s ability to regulate itself.

A sequence of multi-faceted events and initiatives began to unfold in the hopes of adding protections to the area.

The archipelagos became protected under the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area (SGSSI-MPA) in 2012, becoming one of the world’s largest MPA’s, spanning an area of 1.24 million square kilometers. The government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands took further steps in 2018 after an environmental review to fully protected 23% of its waters. However, the rest of the area remained open to industrial fishing, which would disrupt food availability and the interconnected food web. Additionally, since the 2018 review, the impacts of global warming intensified immensely, as the world started to coalesce around the 30×30 initiative to address the growing climate disruption. These implications surrounding the atmospheric alteration further strengthened the case for expanding marine protections in the biodiverse waters.

Last year in 2023, the local government undertook a comprehensive assessment of the SGSSI-MPA. Under this review, scientists evaluated whether existing conservation measures provided adequate protection for the millions of marine animals that call these islands home. The results would inform an independently chaired panel that reports its conclusions to the government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. This government, alongside the UK Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, would decide whether or not to expand protections.

Our team held within its grasp unprecedented access, knowledge, and a photographic library of the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands that we could center our world-renowned storytelling on. We aimed our focus, alongside our conservation partners, on how we could strategize on making a vital impact to safeguard the future of the region. It became vital that we came together to highlight the importance of MPA’s and a wildlife sanctuary. By establishing an MPA within the waters of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, we would not only protect a wild, productive ecosystem, but also support our entire planet’s ability to regulate itself and help to prevent further climate variability. Here lied an opportunity to send a wave of hope throughout the sea when we joined forces with critical partners and policymakers to encourage these vital protections.

We partnered with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy, Great Blue Ocean coalition, and Blue Nature Alliance to help designate a South Atlantic Marine Wildlife Sanctuary in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. By expanding upon the existing 284,000 square kilometer fully protected area, and safeguarding an additional 400,000 square kilometers to fill the full portion of the South Sandwich Islands’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the local government could more effectively support the rich biodiverse waters whose impact radiates throughout our ocean.⁠

Together with our partners, we created an educational campaign to share with our global audiences on the importance of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands and how our collective future is intertwined with the region’s stability. Additionally, we proactively curated resources and communications to impart to elected officials and stakeholders on the increased value of protecting the area and highlighting its potential impact on healing ecosystems regionally and across the globe.

Marine Protected Areas

penguins off the coast of South Georgia jumping off of a small iceberg

King Penguins, Seals, and great scenery, St. Andrewsr South Georgia.

How would increased marine protections help with the region’s recovery and why are we focused on this approach? 

Implementing an expanded MPA in the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands is an essential tool for conserving its marine biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem health, and enhancing climate resilience, particularly in three key areas:

  • Conservation of the Islands’ biodiversity through MPA’s provides safe havens for marine species, allowing them to breed, feed, and grow without disturbance. This helps to preserve biodiversity by protecting habitats that are vital for many marine organisms.
  • Ecosystem health through MPA’s safeguard key habitats and species, as well as contribute to maintaining the overall health of marine ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems quickly become more resilient to environmental stresses like carbon pollution, climate change, and overfishing.
  • Climate resilience through MPA’s helps marine ecosystems to recover to a healthier state. Flourishing ecosystems play a crucial role in mitigating and adapting to climate disruption by sequestering carbon dioxide, helping to regulate ocean temperatures and providing coastal protection against storms and erosion.
threats of climate change and krill fishing in South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands
Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and how it impacts South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

The results

Wandering Albatrosses Prion Island, South Georgia

Wandering Albatrosses Prion Island, South Georgia

On February 26, 2024, we celebrated an ocean protection win for the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands with an expansion to the existing marine protections!

In establishing this new addition, 36% of the region’s EEZ will now belong to a “No-Take Zone” marine protected area, helping to ensure the stability of the region’s krill populations and, thus, their entire food web! Previously, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands’ EEZ was home to 283,000 square kilometers of highly and fully protected waters. Now, 449,000 square kilometers will be entirely closed from fishing activity, introducing an additional 166,000 square kilometers to their fully protected marine area.

By spreading stories that highlight the beauty and importance of this region, you helped give our ocean a voice, and pave the way to positive change, not only for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands but for our entire global ocean.

“The South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands’ marine protected area is so critical and so important. Because here we are at this critical moment in time where we’re starting to put protections around such critical habitats. To know that it’s being given more protection is a heartwarming story that we often don’t get to tell.”

Paul Nicklen
Co-Founder & Lead Storyteller