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South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands

Last edited: Jun 29, 2022, 3:11 PM

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 35° 47’ to 38° 01’ West and 53° 58’ to 54° 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 +1.8°C, ranging from -19.4°C to +26.3°C and it has an average annual rainfall of 160 cm.

 

Location of South Georgia & the South Sandwich

The South Sandwich Islands are a chain of eleven islands in an arc about 400 km in length which forms part of the Scotia Arc that runs from the tip of South America through to the South Orkney and South Shetland Islands. They lie approximately 500 km southeast of South Georgia between 26° 14’ to 28° 01’ West and 56° 18’ to 59° 28’ South. The total land area is 310 km2 and the islands are volcanic with almost all of them showing recent activity. The larger islands are mainly covered by ice whilst the smaller ones are almost ice-free in summer. The islands lie south of the Polar Front and during the winter period (May – November) the islands are generally icebound and recorded temperature extremes at Southern Thule Island temperatures varied between -29.8°C and + 17.7°C.

The first sightings of South Georgia 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.

The South Sandwich Islands were first sighted and named by Captain James Cook in 1775. Sealers arrived in the islands in 1818 and the Russian explorer Bellingshausen visited the northernmost island, Zavodovski, in 1819.

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.

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.

Visitors to the South Sandwich Islands are infrequent but visits by yachts and cruise ships are increasing, particularly to Zavodovski, Saunders and Candlemas Islands. There are automatic weather stations on Zavodovski and Southern Thule, operated by the South African Government with permission from the Government of South Georgia. There are no human inhabitants.

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

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.

The Government of SGSSI (GSGSSI) designated one of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in 2012, which was enhanced further in 2013 and 2019. The MPA has been designed to conserve the region’s marine biodiversity by protecting marine life and maintaining ecological processes while allowing limited sustainable fishing to the highest international standards. Extending over 1.24 million km2 the MPA was designated on the basis of scientific evidence and protects biodiversity through >283,000 km2 of no-take zones and temporal and spatial protection measures that protect 94% of the sea floor and prohibit all commercial fishing within 30km of South Georgia and 50km of the South Sandwich Islands.

Policy and legislation

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. Implementation progress was reviewed in 2007, 2010 and 2016, view the 2016 review report (pdf).

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 South Georgia Strategy 2016 - 2020 is an overarching framework agreed by GSGSSI and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), with the principal objective of “World class environmental management underpinned by the highest standards of governance”. The overarching strategic environmental objective is “To conserve the Territory’s environment, minimise human impacts and, where practicable, restore native biodiversity and habitats”. Under this objective, GSGSSI further commits to “Effectively manage invasive alien species and work along the entire biosecurity continuum to implement best practice biosecurity protocols, post-border monitoring and emergency response measures”. Delivery of the environmental objectives is outlined in the National Biodiversity Action Plan for South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, 2016 - 2020.

The Wildlife and Protected Areas Ordinance of 2011 includes Section 11 on non-native species which sets out provisions which forbid the release of non-native animals, plants or micro-organisms, except under permit. Section 14 relates to restrictions on the import of animals and plants or their products. The legislation was considered to be adequate with regards biosecurity, and is currently under review.

Invasive species and biosecurity

A total of 35 non-native species (marine and terrestrial) was recorded for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands by the RSPB Stocktake (Churchyard et al 2014).

Taxon

Total species

Non-native species

Invertebrates

2,191

8

Vertebrates

213

4

Plants

675

23

Problems with invasive non-native species

Various animals were brought in by the sealers and whalers, mainly for food or as companion animals. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) were introduced to South Georgia by Norwegian whalers to two discreet areas of South Georgia on three occasions between 1909-1925, and Reindeer grazing was implicated in the local eradications of some lichens and in the spread of the introduced Annual meadow-grass (Poa annua). Brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) and House Mice (Mus domesticus) were accidentally introduced by sealers, probably during the nineteenth century. Most introduced plants came in via the whaling stations as seeds with cargo and building material or as fodder for livestock. Brown rats fed on eggs and chicks of ground-nesting birds and burrowing petrels, heavily impacting the endemic South Georgia Pipit (Anthus antarcticus). The range of House Mice and their impact is not known.

A total of 76 non-native vascular plant species have been recorded on South Georgia and it is considered that 41 of these species are still present. A number of introduced plant species seem to be spreading and potentially impacting on native flora species (eg Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and Bittergrass (Cardamine glacialis)). Introduced hover flies (Eristalis croceimaculata) and Bluebottles (Calliphora vicina) may help spread introduced invasive plants. The latter may also compete with native flies. Two introduced ground beetles (Trechisibus antarcticus) and (Merizodus soledadinus) are general predators of other invertebrates and have damaging effects on a number of native species.

Although no known non-native species have been recorded on the South Sandwich Islands this is based on relatively scant information.

Ground flora at Grytviken whaling station is dominated by introduced species, such as dandelion.

Priority invasive non-native species and actions

Reindeer were eradicated from South Georgia in 2014 and Brown Rats in 2015. The rat eradication project was the world’s largest of the time, and was done at a cost of £7.5m, funded by the South Georgia Heritage Trust and supported by the Government. The project had already delivered significant results with the South Georgia pipit, the world’s southernmost songbird, making a welcome resurgence as early as 2018.

In early 2017 the Government launched an ambitious conservation effort to help protect the albatross. South Georgia is a globally important breeding site for a number of seabirds, including black-browed, grey-headed and wandering albatrosses. In its Conservation Action Plans the Government sets out its work with stakeholders, including the British Antarctic Survey and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, to better understand the threats to these remarkable birds and protect them for future generations. The Government is engaging through partners to improve fishing practices internationally to save the albatross, including the Indian Ocean.

Additionally, the Government committed £250k over the five year period 2015 to 2020 to tackle non-native plants. Following comprehensive surveys of the distribution and extent of non-native species a Non-Native Plant Management Strategy was developed to manage 33 out of the 41 non-native plant species on the island to zero population density, or eradicated, by 2020. South Georgia has been divided into management units, determined by dividing the island into eight eco-geographic zones, defined primarily by climate, vegetation and the historic presence of introduced mammals.  Two discrete areas at South Georgia are designated as zones of prohibited access due to the presence of the invasive plant wavy bittercress Cardamine glacialis which is one of the subjects of an eradication programme.

Biosecurity

SGSSI has the highest capacity in biosecurity of all the OTs and its Government invests in stringent biosecurity requirements to help protect the Territory from non-native invasive species, conducting hundreds of biosecurity checks on cargo each year. The simplicity of the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic system makes risk analysis and pathway analysis relatively straightforward, despite the lack of a formal process. A horizon scanning exercise was carried out in 2019, identifying 20 new invasive species of concern which have the potential to arrive within the next 5 – 10 years; read a report on the horizon scanning (PDF)

Border controls are very strict, for both tourists and scientists. Current gaps exist in the lack of adequate procedures and facilities in the Falkland Islands where goods are dispatched to SGSSI, and their reception in SGSSI, particularly with regards to potential rodent infestation. There is reasonable capacity post-border for monitoring, surveillance and rapid response for all biosecurity risks. Invasive species have been prioritised and are being addressed, and baseline inventories are good across all taxa.

GSGSSI implemented a new ‘Biosecurity Audit’ system over the 2018/19 season to check biosecurity procedures of visiting vessels. The new system aims to bolster capacity on vessels to undertake effective biosecurity checks, not just before arrival to Grytviken, but for every landing made on South Georgia. The biosecurity audit showed a trend of improvement over the season, with returning vessels achieving higher pass rates after implementing recommendations.

A permanent programme of biosecurity detector dogs was initiated in 2019, early trials having showed how valuable detector dogs are in checking vessels and cargo bound for South Georgia to ensure they are free from rats and mice.

The multi-sectoral Biosecurity Handbook formalises existing policies and practices, and is revised and updated on an annual basis. 

Projects

Current invasive species management projects are focused on non-native plants, view the 2016 – 2020 South Georgia non-native plant management strategy

A total of four projects were funded under the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP) between 2004 and 2012, find further details. Projects included petrel conservation, habitat restoration, and preparation and evaluation for the rodent eradication which was completed successfully in 2015.

South Georgia has received a number of Darwin Initiative funded projects, view project reports and a list below:

  • An autonomous seabird monitoring network for the southern ocean (DPLUS0002)
  • Antarctic and sub-antarctic marine protected areas: using penguin tracking data to identify candidate areas (DPLUS009)
  • Strategic management of invasive alien plants on South Georgia (DPLUS015)
  • South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project: Final Phase (DPLUS031)
  • South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project: Post-Baiting Phase (DPLUS048)
  • Managing Antarctic krill fisheries: identifying candidate marine areas for protection (DPLUS054)
  • Where are they now? Right whales in South Georgia waters (DPLUS057)
  • Mapping Falklands and South Georgia coastal margins for Spatial Planning (DPLUS065)
  • Building data resources for managing the SGSSI Marine Protected Area (DPLUS069)
  • Developing the risk assessment framework for the Antarctic krill fishery (DPLUS072)
  • Reducing South Georgia albatross mortality in High Seas tuna fisheries (DPLUS076)
  • Securing South Georgia's native habitats following invasive species control (DPLUS080)
  • Integrating genetic approaches into sub-Antarctic deep sea research and management (DPLUS89)
  • Seabird sentinels: mapping potential bycatch risk using bird-borne radar (DPLUS092)
  • HOT: Hadal zones of our Overseas Territories (DPLUS093)

A two-year project (Defra CR 0492), was carried out by CABI in January 2011, looking at the impact of invasive non-native species in the UK Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic and the potential for biological control. For details of this project view the final report on the results for South Georgia. 

The project ‘Tackling invasive non-native species in the UK Overseas Territories’ was implemented between 2016 and 2020 to strengthen biosecurity in the OTs, funded by the UK government Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). South Georgia benefitted from a number of activities to strengthen its biosecurity, including: pathway analysis, horizon scanning, pathway action planning, support for the biosecurity legislation review, contingency planning for wildlife diseases, access to online learning, and technical support. Read further details.

The Blue Belt Programme seeks to enhance long-term sustainable marine protection strategies for the UKOTs, and provides £20 million of funding over 4 years (2016 to 2020), also funded by CSSF and delivered by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). The Programme is assisting South Georgia in strengthening governance of the Marine Protected Area, including research, fisheries legislation, sustainable fisheries management, and compliance and enforcement. View reports and further information.

South Georgia was involved in the CSSF project ‘Natural Capital in the Caribbean and South Atlantic Overseas Territories’ from 2016 to 2019, and delivered to seven OTs by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The programme of work involves mapping and valuing the participating OTs natural capital assets through integrating ecological data, satellite data, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and economic assessments. The final project conference was held in St Helena in March 2019. View project details and reports.

Useful information

Information for visitors

GSGSSI has stringent biosecurity requirements to help protect the Territory from non-native invasive species.

Before travelling please ensure all items are clean, free from organic materials such as mud, faeces, seeds and invertebrates:

  • Check your footwear, outdoor clothing and day packs to make sure they are clean and free from weed seeds, mud, invertebrates and plant material. If possible we recommend that you travel with new outdoor clothing and equipment. Shake out or vacuum all the compartments and pockets before you pack.
  • If you have been camping, check that your tent and other equipment is clean, dry and free of dirt and invertebrates such as ants and spiders. Shake it out before you pack it up for travel and ensure no soil remains on tent pegs.
  • If you have been hiking, visiting a wilderness area, farm or zoo, make sure your footwear and clothes are clean and free from seeds, mud and faeces. Check boot soles for mud between the treads, Velcro fastenings for seeds and plant material, and shake out or vacuum pockets to remove any dirt and plant material.
  • If you are carrying golf, fishing or other sports and outdoor equipment with you, make sure they are clean, dry and free from dirt and any live creatures.

The SGSSI Biosecurity Handbook can be found here  

Contact

Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands

Government House

Stanley

Falkland Islands

FIQQ 1ZZ

Tel: +500 28207

Email: env@gov.gs

Documents

  • Barnsley, S., Cary, E., Pienkowski, M. and Wensink, C. (Eds) (2016).  Review of performance by 2016 of UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in implementing the 2001 Environment Charters or their equivalents and moving towards the Aichi Targets and Sustainable Development Targets. UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, April 2016.
  • Churchyard, T., Eaton, M., Hall, J., Millett, J., Farr, A., Cuthbert, R. and Stringer, C.  (2014). The UK’s wildlife overseas: a stocktake of nature in our Overseas Territories.  Sandy, UK: RSPB.
  • Edgar, P. (2010). The Amphibians and reptiles of the UK Overseas Territories, Crown Dependencies and Sovereign Base Areas: Species Inventory and Overview of Conservation and Research Priorities. Bournemouth, UK: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
  • Proctor, D. and Fleming, L. V., eds. (1999). Biodiversity: the UK Overseas Territories. Peterborough, UK: JNCC.
  • Sanders, S. M., ed. (2006). Important Bird Areas in the United Kingdom Overseas Territories. Sandy, UK: RSPB.
  • Varnham, K. (2006). Non-native species in UK Overseas Territories: a review. Peterborough, UK: JNCC Report No. 372.

Websites