UP scientist joins call to protect Southern Ocean

The Southern Ocean around Antarctica needs urgent protection – for the sake of the rest of the world. This marine wilderness is threatened by climate change and commercial fisheries, says University of Pretoria (UP) macro-ecologist Dr Luis Pertierra, an expert on the natural value of the Antarctic.

He has added his voice to that of other leading international researchers who want formal marine-protected areas and fishing bans for Earth’s most southern waters. He is also urging other scientists and conservation practitioners to add their voices to the call by signing a petition under the banner “Scientists uniting to protect Antarctica’s ocean”.

Dr Pertierra, of UP’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, has co-authored a newly released policy forum titled ‘Protect global values of the Southern Ocean ecosystem’ in the leading Science journal. In addition to being a macro-ecologist, Dr Pertierra is also a bio-geographer who studies how changes in the polar regions affect the world at large, especially the biodiversity found on land.

UP alumnus Prof Steven Chown of Monash University in Australia was another co-author of the paper. He is Director of the Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future project and former president of the international Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

The policy is being put forward to coincide with high-level conservation-related policy discussions in Hobart, Australia, at the 41st meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The commission is an arm of the Antarctic Treaty system, which is responsible for managing marine living resources in the Southern Ocean.

The Southern Ocean contains about 10% of the world’s sea water. It is of global importance because, among others, it has immense wilderness and ecological value within the planet’s system at large, and plays a critical role in climate regulation and carbon storage.

“People do not appreciate how important it is to us,” says Dr Pertierra, who recently led a global assessment of the state of ecosystem services in Antarctica, their value for the world and how these services can be managed into the future.

Antarctic waters affect Earth’s climate, moderate sea level, and play a strong role in global ocean circulation and nutrient cycling. The waters disproportionately absorb or capture carbon dioxide and heat being produced elsewhere in the world. The Southern Ocean therefore helps to regulate temperatures and climates. It buffers the rest of the world from the impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, which can influence the livelihood of people living in coastal areas.

The Southern Ocean also plays an important role in oxygen production, while its food web supports iconic animals such as whales and penguins.

“Allowing fishing to continue in its current form is increasingly unsustainable, with benefits captured by a few wealthy nations and little contribution being made to food security,” the authors of the Science paper say. “Fishing jeopardises the Southern Ocean ecosystem and its globally significant services. Stronger management action is required, including managing for ecological and climate resilience, implementing marine-protected areas, and considering the full suite of values for future generations as well as a potential moratorium on Southern Ocean fishing.” 

“We should impose more restrictions on the few companies that benefit from fishing and hunting activities in the region, because these are increasingly impacting the other intangible benefits that the region holds for the rest of the world,” Dr Pertierra adds.

* The international sovereignty of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean (also known as the Antarctic Ocean) is suspended under the Antarctic Treaty. 

Click on the infographic in the sidebar to learn some quick facts on the Southern Ocean or click on the gallery to view pictures from the field. 

Dr Luis Pertierra

November 2, 2022

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  • Dr Luis Pertierra

    Dr Luis Pertierra obtained his undergraduate degree in Environmental Science at the Autonomous University of Madrid in Spain. He has been a senior postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Department of Plant and Soil Sciences  for the past 18 months.

    His research focuses on biodiversity in the Southern Ocean, specifically the study of the biota of the Prince Edward Islands, and South Africa’s interests in the polar region. “I am doing my research at UP because my supervisor, Professor Michelle Greve, and I have a common interest and complementary set of skills in polar ecology,” he says.

    His research contributes to the betterment of the world because it aims to protect the ecosystem services of polar biodiversity.

    He says his research matters because the Antarctic region alone comprises one-sixth of the planet. The ecosystem services of the Southern Ocean and emerged lands in the Antarctic region are immense, and include global climate and biodiversity regulation; an array of cultural services such as scientific knowledge and bioprospecting; direct human life support such as sea level control; and living resources provisioning, namely fishing. However, these services still need to be fully valued and managed efficiently to guarantee a long-term sustainable provision of services to humankind.

    Dr Pertierra is part of the ASICS Project, which is investigating the effects of climate change and invasive species in polar and alpine environments. ASICS stands for ASsessing and mitigating the effects of climate change and biological Invasions on the spatial redistribution of biodiversity in Cold environmentS, and is a global network of ecologists that is passionate about biodiversity in Earth’s most remote areas.

    The ASICS South African division is led by Prof Greve, and researchers work closely with colleagues from French and other international institutions in their study of polar biodiversity redistribution.

    In addition to his core work in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Dr Pertierra collaborates with researchers at UP’s Centre for Microbial Ecology and Genomics, which is part of the Genomics Research Institute, to study the macro-ecological effects of global change on the microbiology of African soils.

    He says that learning the science behind functional ecology studies has been a great addition to his portfolio. “I have been able to see the natural world with a new complementary perspective. I was recently involved in a research expedition to the sub-Antarctic Marion Island; I think the expedition will lead to numerous outcomes of value.”

    Dr Pertierra says that Dr Greve has been a great inspiration to him in terms of pursuing quality science and embracing new computational and statistical skills, allowing him to reach new heights. As for academic role models, several researchers inspire him. He mentions Prof Pete Le Roux of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences for “his vast knowledge on the functioning of polar ecosystems, his gentle ways and mentoring skills”.

    Dr Pertierra hopes to contribute to the understanding, awareness and conservation of polar and global ecosystems. “In particular, I have a vested interest in the preservation of marine birds (penguins and seabirds), vegetation (vascular and non-vascular plants) and soil ecosystems fauna (invertebrates) from the arrival of non-native species in order to retain their ecosystem services but also to maintain their semi-pristine uniqueness for future generations, and to safeguard their scientific, heritage, landscape and recreational values.”

    His advice to school learners or undergraduates who are interested in his field is to be passionate about their work and to find out how to contribute to the betterment of nature and modern society. “Think outside the box and try to see the big picture,” he urges. “We often fail to realise how connected our world is nowadays, so changes in remote parts, such as the poles, matter a lot, even for spatially distant societies. We are on the verge of irremediable ecosystem collapses, and we urgently need more decisive and non-conformist action. It is in your spirit to shape the world as you see fit.”

    Dr Pertierra says he enjoys watching science fiction and dystopian movies, series and videogames in his spare time because “they allow me to explore the ‘what-ifs’. “I am also obsessed with nature photography and take any opportunity to visit the wilder areas of South Africa such as the Kruger National Park.” He is also an active reader of news on Twitter to ensure that stays on the pulse of environmental changes and can be found on his handle @luisrpertierra.

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