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Invasive species ‘hitchhiking’ on ships to Antarctica, study finds

Antarctica’s pristine wilderness and fragile ecosystem may be negatively impacted due to invasive species that are hitching rides through ship-borne human activities, a new study has found.

Researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Cambridge have found that ship movements related to fishing, tourism, research, and supply expose the Antarctic continent to human impacts.

Around 1,500 ports across the world are connected to Antarctica. When these ships enter the fragile isolated Antarctic region, they often bring in any other marine species that can cling on to the hull of ships and become a threat to the ecosystem and the natural inhabitants of the area, they said.

Creatures like mussels, crabs, and barnacles are of particular concern as they latch onto the ship hull easily.

“These ships travel all around the world,” lead researcher Arlie McCarthy from the University of Cambridge told BBC News. “It means that almost anywhere could be a potential source for invasive species”, and these non-native species “can completely change an ecosystem”.

“They can create entirely new habitats that would make it harder for those amazing Antarctic animals to find their own place to live,” she added.

The region needs to be protected from such marine invasions as “Antarctica’s native species have been isolated for the last 15-30 million years”, said Professor David Aldridge from the University of Cambridge.

The study found that of all the human ship-borne activities, tourism—even though it is regulated in the region—contributes to 67 per cent of visits to Antarctica. This is followed by research (21 per cent) and fishing (7 per cent).

Data from the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators shows that between 2009 and 2020, more than 70,000 tourists visited Antarctic locations.

“Anywhere these ships go, we see other kinds of human impact on the environment, whether that is accidental release of waste, pollution, collisions with wildlife or noise disturbance,” said Ms McCarthy.

Researchers have called for improved biosecurity protocols to conserve the Antarctic ecosystem, which has become even more important “as ocean temperatures continue to rise due to climate change”.

“We know something will arrive if we leave things as they are,” said Professor Lloyd Peck from the British Antarctic Survey.

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