The Falkland Islands: Pristine nature under threat

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Photo: Cedric DelvesPhoto: Cedric Delves
By Jimmy Langman

Editors note: The following is from 
Issue 20.
On my flight with Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) to Carcass Island, the pilot invited me to sit up front of the small twin-propeller, 8-seater plane. En route, as I snapped photos of the terrain below, I remarked about how much pristine nature I had seen in the islands up to now. “That’s what they all say,” he gasped.  “But as a pilot, I see this every day,” he said, pointing to a severely eroded hillside bereft of vegetation. “All over the place…the islands have been hammered by overgrazing and fires.”
It was an eye-opening statement; the pilot was right. At first glance, the Falklands archipelago appears to be a natural treasure, it is teeming with wildlife along its coastline and there are vast, open spaces with little to none development. Yet, despite its remote location in the South Atlantic, like much of the rest of the world, this small country faces serious environmental dilemmas from unsustainable economic activities, past and present.
Today’s environmental problems stretch all the way back to the first colonists over two and a half centuries ago. Ranchers eliminated the only endemic land mammal, the warrah or “Falklands fox,” in the 19th century. Settlers in the early decades also introduced ecological exotics such as foxes and guanacos from the South American continent. The invasive species moreover include non-native feral cats and rats, which together with the South American fox continue to menace three-fourths of the 220 bird species found on the islands.
But it’s the introduction of sheep, which by the late 1800s already numbered more than 800,000, that have brought the most sweeping change.
As their windswept pastureland began to degrade early on, sheep ranchers placed blame on wild upland and ruddy-headed geese and proceeded to annually kill tens of thousands of them over the past century. But the soil erosion continued, as the real source of the problem had always been their hungry sheep and land mismanagement. Hardest hit has been native tussock grass, which can grow up to 3 meters (10 feet) high and are important shelter for birdlife in the tree-less Falklands. Nowadays, you only see tussock and most birds on the outer islands where there are few or no sheep.
An abundant aea
When ocean currents moving north from the Antarctic reach the underwater ridges of the Falkland Islands, the upwellings give prime access to enormous quantities of krill, squid and other nutrients. That abundance of seafood is what most attracts penguins and other wildlife to the archipelago. But it also attracts commercial fishermen.
Penguin survival is influenced by multiple factors – including climate change, disease, habitat loss and pollution – but overfishing most directly threatens their food supply. In the Falklands, the species most at risk from overexploitation of marine resources are the rockhoppers, whose local population has fallen by 85 percent since the 1930s, and the Magellanic penguins, which rely on squid (the Falkland’s top export) for about half their diet. The Falklands have much improved their management of fisheries since formally regulating the sector in 1987, but there remain significant conservation gaps. When making laws and policy, the United Nations and several of its international treaties call on countries to use the precautionary principle, which states: “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”
The Falklands could start to address the threats to its penguins by taking a cue from South Africa; last year, a study showed that setting up no-fishing zones within 20 to 30 kms (12 to 19 miles) of penguin breeding areas is greatly helping their endangered African penguin population to recover.
As well, squid and fish don’t recognize political borders. Because Argentina still does not recognize the Falkland Islands as a sovereign nation, the South Atlantic is the only region in the world with no international agreement to conserve fisheries. Meantime, hundreds of fishing boats (mostly from China) regularly swarm the high seas that straddle the fishing zones of these two countries, and their handiwork threatens the complete crash of squid and other fish stocks. The problem has gotten so big that you can even see the many night fishermen hunting for squid on a NASA “night lights” map taken from space.
Yet, an even greater eco-crisis looms. In May, Britain’s Premier Oil announced that it is “well advanced” with financing and plans to submit its project for drilling 23 subsea wells off the pristine northern Falklands before the end of this year. It could be the first of much more offshore oil development. If the project gets approved, as expected, locals will check precaution at the door and put in harm’s way its priceless wildlife for a chance to join the ranks of the super-rich.
The country’s lone environmental organization, Falklands Conservation – whose budget depends in part on public funds – long ago threw in the towel and at this juncture merely seeks to minimize the environmental risks. Esther Bertram, CEO of the group, admits that if a big spill were to occur, they are located so far from anywhere else that there would be little anyone could do to respond. “You can certainly have an effective response on a small-scale,” she said. “But if a big spill occurs, there would be decimation.”

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