Busy time for the SG&SSI marine non-native species project

Dr Siobhan Vye

It’s been a busy few months for the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands marine non-native species project. Since getting started in October, we’ve made headway with a review of global biofouling management policies, designed and disseminated a questionnaire on vessel operating profiles and voyage histories and completed a number hull surveys. We’ve also started experiments looking at whether species present in the Falkland Islands can survive the temperatures experienced transiting through the polar front to South Georgia.
Getting started

The project kicked off late 2023, and initially focused on working out how we would collect the information required to help assess risk of non-native species introductions through biofouling. Biofouling is marine fauna and flora that grow on surfaces of the ship that are submerged underwater. Biofouling can include non-native species that pose an environmental threat if they are transported to, and establish in, a new location. Biofouling also has an impact on vessel speed and fuel consumption. Previous research from around the globe has identified some key indicators for the amount and type of biofouling present on a ship, including the speed of the ship, how long it stops in ports and the age of the antifouling treatment. This project aims to assess these indicators for vessel traffic in the SGSSI maritime zone as well as collect data on the actual level of biofouling on vessels travelling in the region to better understand the risk this poses in terms of non-native species introductions. With the project starting at the beginning of the austral summer, a busy season for vessels travelling to South Georgia and the Antarctic region, it was essential that we started to collect data as soon as possible while vessels were in the region.
Surveyors about to head into the water © SMSG
Data collection begins

After initial research, we developed two methods to collect the information required; a questionnaire to collect data on the ship behaviour; and a hull survey methodology to assess the level of biofouling present on vessels. Both methods required reaching out vessel owners and operators to gain the information needed. The team at GSGSSI helped to facilitate connections to get the data collection off the ground, such as linking the project up with IAATO (a membership organisation for cruise and expedition companies operating in Antarctica) & fishing companies, military and research vessels.
While we wait for questionnaire responses to be submitted, we have focused on completing the hull surveys on a range of different vessel types. Our aim isn’t to survey all vessels, but a small subset that will provide a snapshot overview of the level of fouling in general on vessels. Getting the surveys completed has been quite challenging, as they are very dependent on the weather, availability of team members and working round vessels itinerary while they are in Stanley. As Stanley is a gateway port to the Antarctic region, many vessels are only in the harbour for a day or less before continuing their journey. And Stanley is well known for its changeable weather and strong winds – less than ideal survey conditions!
So far, we’ve managed to survey a small number of yachts, research, fishing vessels and cruise ships, providing us with a snapshot of different types of vessels in the fleet operating in SGSSI waters. We’ve also tried out a range of different techniques to try and overcome the logistical challenges with conducting the surveys, from more involved scuba dive surveys and remote operated vehicles, to collecting the data through a go pro on an extendable or extra-long pole.
Both data collection activities will continue until later in the year and the team are incredibly grateful to those vessel operators who have taken the time to take part in the surveys and questionnaires so far.
Surveyor collecting images to quantify level of biofouling © SMSG

Alongside understanding the risk of vessels carrying non-native species, the project is also interested in finding out whether species here in the Falklands would survive transport and be able to establish in South Georgia. Previous work had shown that the Falklands is very well connected to South Georgia in terms of shipping traffic, and has a number of native and non-native species that could have impacts on the South Georgia marine environment if they established there. However, South Georgia sits on the other side of the polar front to the Falkland Islands. The Polar Front is where the conditions in the ocean, particularly temperature, changes from the relatively warm waters of the Falkland Islands, to the cold waters that circulate Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic Islands. To successfully establish in South Georgia, species would have to both survive the rapid temperature drop they would experience in transit over the polar front and the constant cold temperatures around South Georgia.
Simon Morley from BAS setting up experiments 
To investigate whether there are any species of concern that could survive this, we’ve set up a mini cold laboratory in a refrigerated container. By using the controlled temperature conditions that the refrigerated container provides, we can simulate the temperature drop organisms would experience in transit, and compare their physiological response to individuals that we keep at Falkland Islands water temperatures using aquarium heaters. Dr Simon Morley from the British Antarctic Survey travelled from the UK to Stanley in early February to help get the experiments started and pass on his expertise in physiological experiments such as these. With Simon’s help the first experiment was completed in early March, and we are planning more for the austral winter.
What is next for the project?
We are almost halfway through the project with plenty left to do. The next quarter will be focused on continuing to gather as much data as possible through the different methods, and setting up and running more experiments, before the focus shifts to analysing and writing up the results later in the 2024.
PO Box 609, Stanley Cottage North
Ross Road, Falkland Islands
Stanley, FIQQ 1ZZ
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