Conserving overseas territories

Volcano eruptions, invading reindeer and starving penguins were among the myriad subjects covered in just one session of a conservation conference of British Overseas Territories in Cayman this week.

The wide-ranging conference attracted speakers and delegates from as far afield as South Georgia near the Antarctic, South Africa and the Canary Islands in Spain.

A session early in the conference brought to light some of the expected, and unsual, effects that climate change is having on small island nations.

In introducing the session, former governor of the Cayman Islands, Bruce Dinwiddy, said: ‘I first became concerned about climate change 12 years ago when I saw first hand the effect of slowly rising sea levels on the British Indian Ocean Territory which is even lower and flatter than Grand Cayman.’

He said this led to corals being bleached and a rise in the sea surface temperature.

Mr. Dinwiddy admitted that the tiny overseas territories of Britain made a ‘very negligible contribution to global warming’, but insisted: ‘I believe every one of us has a responsibility to reduce or mitigate as far as possible our own individual carbon footprint.’

One speaker, Darren Christie, told of the environmental impact on the tiny island of South Georgia on which the existence of three resident alien species – rats, mice and reindeer – has caused problems for many years to native species of flora and fauna.

Showing images of how glaciers in the area have been receding at a rapid rate, Mr. Christie, the sole environment officer of the government of South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, said the average decline since the 1950s had been 60 metres per year, but last year it was recorded at 400 metres.

To deal with invasive species, Mr. Christie said the government of South Georgia was accepting the fact that it would have to remove the Norwegian reindeer herds on the island, something it had been reluctant to do due to a lack of resources.

He said rising sea temperatures may have accounted for the 100 per cent mortality of gentoo penguin chicks this year. ‘High mortality rates are not unprecedented,’ he said, ‘but we haven’t seen anything quite as bad as this year.’

He said warmer sea temperatures mean krill, which the penguins feed on, moved to the north of the island, leaving no food at the penguins’ breeding grounds, so the chicks starved.

Warmer sea temperatures have also affected the amount of squid fished by fishermen in South Georgia. On a good year, they can catch up to 20,000 tons of squid, Mr. Christie said, but this year they had caught just 740 kilos.

Other speakers shared tales of the devastating impact climate change was having in their small states.

In the tiny island of Montserrat, which is just 10 miles long, rebuilding of its capital Plymouth is still continuing after it was destroyed in the July 1995 eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano.

Stephen Mendes of the Montserrat Department of Environment described how the site for the new capital is ‘quite low to sea level’ but that a building plan was being implemented to raise the area by two metres.

However, another delegate from Montserrat said she was concerned about the location of the new capital because: ‘the idea is to raise it one or two metres, but from what I hear, the sea level rises will be much more than that.’

The Cayman Islands also contributed to discussions on what was being done locally to combat, or at least prepare for the impact of climate change.

Lisa-Ann Hurlston, the Cayman Islands Department of Environment’s sustainable development coordinator, described the sea defences work in Cayman to deal with rising sea levels.

She said the ‘precautionary principle’ needed to be taken into account when carrying out planning considerations.

Throughout the conference, organised by the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, posters from each of the overseas territories, crown dependencies and other small nation communities were on display.

The aim of the conference was to draw on the similarities and differences in the territories so as to provide insights into common challenges and enable participants to become better equipped to address local needs.