SOUTH GEORGIA AND the south SANDWICH ISLANDS
The UK Overseas Territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) contains a smattering of incredibly remote islands of the Southern Ocean: South Georgia sits about 1,300 km to the southeast of the Falkland Islands, and the South Sandwich Islands lie a further 750 km to the southeast. In all, the landmass of SGSSI sums to just under 4,000 km2 , but its vast exclusive economic zone stretches to almost 1,500,000 km2 .
It is thought that the island of South Georgia was first seen and visited by an Englishman, Anthony de la Roché, in 1675. Captain Cook then landed on and claimed South Georgia for the UK in 1775, daubing it the Isle of Georgia in honour of King George III. He also discovered the South Sandwich Islands in the same year, naming them Sandwich Land after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, and First Lord of the Admiralty. These islands were later claimed for the UK in 1908.
SGSSI has a rich cultural heritage, despite having no indigenous nor permanent human population. South Georgia, for instance, has been frequented by a raft of polar explorers, including during the renowned Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration of the late-19th and early-20th century. What’s more, the island played a key role in the Falklands War of 1982. To explain: the war was spurred when a group of Argentinians, many of them Argentine Marines, occupied Grytviken, a former whaling station on South Georgia. The invasion of South Georgia then saw the Argentine Navy attack and occupy the island’s east coast. Nevertheless, British forces recaptured the island after just a few weeks via Operation Paraquet.
South Georgia, moreover, was a prominent base for whaling and sealing from the early- to mid-20th century. More than 175,000 great whales, the majority of which were blue, fin, and humpback, were hunted and harvested in its waters, and fur and elephant seals were killed by the hundreds of thousands. Strikingly, parts of South Georgia remain littered with the remains of slain whales and discarded whaling equipment.
The islands nonetheless remain internationally important for their biodiversity. They sustain major populations of seabirds, including swathes of penguins, petrels, albatrosses, and many birds that can be found nowhere else in the world. Plus, they support vast numbers of fur and elephant seals, as well as plentiful populations of various dolphins and whales. Environmental protection and sustainable management are prominent features of the management and governance of SGSSI, as, for instance, demonstrated through the largest ever rat removal ever carried out, and establishment of the huge, and sustainably managed, marine protected area (see Environment section).
SGSSI has been under continuous British administration since 1908, bar the aforementioned few weeks in 1982 between the Argentinian invasion of South Georgia and its recapture by British forces. It has been a UK Overseas Territory since 1985, before which it was a Falkland Islands Dependency. The constitution adopted in 1985 is still in use today.
Administration of SGSSI is headed by the Commissioner, who, at present, is the person that holds the office of Governor of the Falkland Islands. The Commissioner, based in Stanley on the Falkland Islands, is supported by key figures that include the Chief Executive, Directors, Financial Secretary, Attorney General, and others. Plus, there are officials based at King Edward Point on South Georgia itself. This Government of SGSSI is responsible for making its own legislation, which is in line with, and implements, the Antarctic Treaty System and other international agreements. The UK Government does, though, retain overall responsibility for good governance, defence, and foreign policy in SGSSI. On this note, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) takes a leading role in engagement with SGSSI, for instance, so that it can effectively manage its foreign relations.
SGSSI generates over 75% of its revenue from the sale of fishing licences. The majority of fishing targets toothfish, icefish, and krill; in fact, toothfish fishing is so important that SGSSI has Toothfish Day as an annual bank holiday. A substantial proportion of the millions of pounds generated through the sale of fishing licenses is devoted to fishery protection and research. All of the SGSSI fisheries adhere to, or, indeed, exceed, the standards set by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR – a Convention that forms part of the Antarctic Treaty System.
SGSSI also generates revenue through tourism and the sale of stamps and coins. Tourists arrive by sea, and often stop at Grytviken in King Edward Cove; a settlement with a substantial cultural heritage. It is an abandoned whaling station, as well as, infamously, the site of the initial Argentinian occupation that precipitated the Falklands War. It is also the resting place of famed polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. Many of the tourists that visit Grytviken then continue to the Antarctic Peninsula of the British Antarctic Territory.
A polar climate shrouds SGSSI’s islands throughout the year. The islands themselves are rather rugged, and, at higher elevations, topped with ice and snow. Pack ice often surrounds them during the winter. But despite these seemingly harsh conditions, both South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands harbour remarkable wildlife and ecosystems.
South Georgia, for instance, hosts vast seabird colonies, which, together, include almost 30 species and over 50 million pairs. There are huge numbers of penguins, including more than two million macaroni penguins and well over one million chinstraps, which amounts to almost half the chinstraps in the world. There are several species of albatross, including the wandering albatross, the largest seabird in the world. Plus, there are a number of endemics, like the South Georgia pipit, South Georgia pintail, and South Georgia shag. In the summer, South Georgia’s coasts host around four and a half million Antarctic fur seals, which equates to about 95% of their global population, and half a million elephant seals. Moreover, several species of porpoises, dolphins, and whales are often seen in South Georgia’s waters, with one of the most frequently sighted being southern right whales. These iconic marine mammals sit atop what are incredibly rich webs of marine biodiversity.
What’s more, South Georgia’s wildlife and environments have been the focus of decades of research, and, as a result, a number of its seabirds and marine mammals are associated with some of the longest and most detailed population datasets of the Southern Ocean. Central to the research activities in SGSSI are the research stations of Bird Island and King Edward Point, and the UK’s national polar research institute, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
SGSSI’s incredible biodiversity, however, faces certain threats. Climate change, for instance, poses an ominous threat, with one manifestation being that warmer conditions will cause glaciers to melt, and thereby open up more areas for colonisation by non-native, and potentially invasive, species. It is thus rather concerning that around 97% of South Georgia’s glaciers have retreated in the past half century. Commercial fishing, too, places some pressure on marine life in parts of the Territory.
It is therefore warmly welcome that the principles of environmental protection and sustainable management are prominent features of SGSSI’s management and governance. On this note, SGSSI boasts a number of inspiring conservation initiatives. For instance, South Georgia was the site of the largest rat eradication ever conducted. This project, led by the South Georgia Heritage Trust, involved the systematic release of rodenticide from helicopters across vast tracts of the island. It commenced in the early-2010s, and, only a few years later, it was announced that the island was very likely to be rat free. A follow up search a couple of years later found no trace of rodents. Around the same time, non-native reindeer and various non-native plants were removed. Another noteworthy SGSSI conservation initiative is the SGSSI Marine Protected Area (SGSSI-MPA). The Government of SGSSI created this marine protected area in 2012, and enhanced it in 2013 and 2019. At present, the SGSSI-MPA covers more than 1,200,000 km2, which makes it one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.
Authors: Ben Parker & Robert Midgley
> Permanent Human Population: 0.
> Currency: Pound Sterling.
> Capital: King Edward Point (named in honour of King Edward VII and, at present, the smallest capital by population in the world).
> Administration: Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, with personnel based in Stanley, Falkland Islands, and at King Edward Point, South Georgia (https://www.gov.gs/).
> Notable Organisations: British Antarctic Survey (https://www.bas.ac.uk/) and South Georgia Heritage Trust (https://sght.org/).