South Georgia

About the territory

South Georgia is a long, narrow, mountainous and heavily glaciated island south of the Polar Front. It is about 170 km long and varies between 2 and 40km wide. It is about 1,400 km east of the Falkland Islands and is part of the Scotia Arc that links the Antarctic Peninsula with South America. It lies between 35o 47’ to 38o 01’ West and 53o 58’ to 54o 53’ South. It covers an area of about 3,755 km2 and has four principal outlying islands (Main Island in the Willis Islands, Bird Island, Cooper Island and Annenkov Island) as well as numerous small islands and offshore rocks. The average annual temperature is +1.8oC, ranging from -19.4OC to +26.3oC and it has an average annual rainfall of 160 cm.

The first sightings of the island were thought to have been made by Antoine de la Roche in 1675 and Gregorio Jerez in 1756. In January 1775 Captain James Cook spent a few days charting the coast and establishing that it was an island and not the “Southern Continent” he was looking for. On 17 January 1775 he made a landing in Possession Bay on the north coast and took possession of the island for the Crown of Great Britain. Following the descriptions of abundant seals from Cook’s voyage the island soon came to the attention of the sealing industry. From 1786 through to 1965 both Antarctic Fur Seals (Arctocephalus gazella) and Southern Elephant Seals (Mirounga leonina) were subject to exploitation for pelts and oil. In 1904 Norwegian whalers established the first whaling station on South Georgia at Grytviken. This was followed by a number of others and whaling continued through to 1965, by which time 175,250 whales had been taken. At the height of the whaling period 2,000 people lived on the island.

In 1843 Letters Patent were issued which provided for the Government of the Falkland Island and Dependencies. In 1909 a Magistrate was appointed to South Georgia. Initially he was given accommodation at Grytviken whaling station but subsequently a separate administrative station was set up on King Edward Point during 1912. This administrative presence was maintained until 1969 when the Falkland Islands Dependencies Government leased the settlement and equipment at King Edward Point to the British Antarctic Survey for use as a scientific station. BAS discharged any necessary administrative functions, particularly in relation to visiting ships and operating the Post Office. This continued until the islands were occupied by Argentinian military forces in early April 1982 during the Falklands War. British military forces reoccupied the island at the end of April.

In 1985 South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands became a separate UK Overseas Territory with a Commissioner, based in the Falkland Islands, as Head of Government.

There are no permanent inhabitants on South Georgia but there are two BAS Research Stations and Government Officers and museum curators during the summer months. The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) is financially self-sufficient through income derived from fishing licences, visitor landing fees and the sale of stamps.

Biodiversity

The British Antarctic Survey has carried out extensive research into many aspects of the marine and terrestrial biodiversity of South Georgia. The island has 25 species of native plants, all of which are perennial and herbaceous; there are about 40 introduced plants. There are about 200 species of moss and liverwort on South Georgia, of which less than 5% are regarded as endemic whilst about 25% of the 200 species of lichen are regarded as endemic. All but four species of breeding birds on South Georgia are seabirds and the island is regarded as holding one of the World’s most abundant and diverse seabird communities with globally important populations of a number of procellariid species. There are no native terrestrial mammals but the islands hold significant populations of fur and elephant seals.

Policy/Strategy background

The GSGSSI has an Environment Charter signed jointly with the UK Government. Guiding Principle 7 is to safeguard and restore native species, habitats and landscape features, and control or eradicate invasive species. Under the associated commitment 2 the GSGSSI will ensure the protection and restoration of key habitats, species and landscape features through legislation and appropriate management structures and mechanisms, including a protected area policy, and attempt the control and eradication of invasive species.

A South Atlantic Invasive Species Strategy and Action Plan agreed by the Governments of Ascension Island, Saint Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands was published in October 2010. This set out a number of strategic aims for the South Atlantic Overseas Territories in order to develop effective prevention and response measures for invasive species and thus reduce damage to their natural heritage, communities, livelihoods and options for future development. Key actions are grouped under five objectives: (A) Building awareness and support; (B) Co-ordination, co-operation and capacity-building; (C) Prevention; (D) Monitoring, early detection and rapid response; (E) Control, management and restoration.

The GSGSSI has a five year Strategy (2010-2015) which includes, under Environmental Management, sections on the management of non-native species and biosecurity. The former section has key objectives relating to rat eradication, reindeer eradication or removal, the development of monitoring and control strategies for non-native species, including marine invasive species. The section on biosecurity has key objectives relating to review of the biosecurity regime, monitoring, exchange and incorporation of best practice from elsewhere and the development of robust monitoring and res[ponse systems for new introductions. Details can be found at http://www.sgisland.gs/download/South Georgia Strategy final.pdf.

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