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Antarctica and the polar regions

This was archived on 11 September 2014

No longer current

British Antarctic Territory

The British Antarctic Territory is the UK’s largest overseas territory. The UK has the longest established claim to territory in the Antarctic, dating back to 1908.

The territory comprises the area between latitude 60° South and longitudes 20° West and 80° West, forming a wedge shape that extends to the South Pole. It includes the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Shetland Islands, South Orkney Islands, the Ronne Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea and other parts of central continental Antarctica.

Governance of the Territory

The Territory is administered by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Polar Regions Department. The Director of the Overseas Territories Directorate acts as Commissioner and the Head of the Polar Regions Department as the Deputy Commissioner.

The territory has its own laws, tax system, postal administration and coinage. The British Antarctic Territory website provides more details about the territory.

Antarctica is protected by the Antarctic Treaty 1959, which reserves the continent for peace and scientific investigation.

The UK has been continually engaged in Antarctic activity through the scientific work of the British Antarctic Survey.

Protecting the environment

Antarctica is a pristine environment, home to a unique ecosystem and diverse body of flora and fauna. To protect this environment, the Antarctic Treaty’s Environmental Protocol was agreed in 1991 by the Antarctic Consultative Parties. The protocol established a number of measures to protect the fragile Antarctic environment, both from human activity and from the effects of climate change.

The protocol bans any kind of mineral extraction within the area.

The protocol establishes strict conditions on people travelling to the Antarctic. In the UK, the Antarctic Act 1994 requires UK expeditions to the Antarctic to have a permit issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Permits are issued by the FCO’s Polar Regions Department. Permit applications must meet a strict set of conditions and satisfy the Polar Regions Department that the expedition will be safe and environmentally friendly.

The Protocol also allows for the creation of Specially Protected Areas, puts conditions on how waste is handled, sets criteria for the creation of science bases, protects Antarctica’s flora and fauna and allows for the designation and protection of historic sites and monuments.

A new annex to the Protocol was agreed in 2005 which requires visitors to Antarctica to be prepared for an environmental emergency or pay to clean up any damage. The UK intends to implement this new annex through a new Antarctic Bill.

These include, among other initiatives, establishing terrestrial and marine Protected Areas, developing site-specific guidelines for Antarctic visitors, and introducing sustainable fisheries management.

Permits for expeditions

Any person on a British expedition to Antarctica or taking a British vessel and/or aircraft into the Antarctic Treaty area requires a permit.

British nationals should follow the application process which contains documentation and contact details.

Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean have numerous species which are unique to this area of the planet and which form an extremely interlinked ecosystem.

Reduced numbers of plankton, krill and other invertebrates have the potential to cause severe adverse impacts on fish, seabirds and marine mammals. For example, they could lead to reduced breeding success for many iconic species including penguins.

The Convention on Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established in 1981 by the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty. The convention aims to protect the Antarctic’s delicate ecosystem. . CCAMLR pioneered a new approach to fisheries management for the Southern Ocean, based on protecting its ecosystem as a whole. For example, the convention imposes strict precautionary catch limits, to prevent large catches of krill that could reduce the food available to other species in the main foraging areas of Antarctic fauna.

The Convention excludes management of whales and seals, which are subject respectively to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, 1946, and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (1972).

The UK sends a mixed delegation of scientists and officials to the annual meetings, held in November, in Hobart, Australia, to negotiate conservation management measures and agree a total allowable catch for each fishery within the Convention area.