Monday 18 March 2024

The ecological crisis no one is talking about

#expeditioncruising .

Unless you’ve you been tuning in to some of the more erudite media channels, you probably have no idea about the crisis unfolding in polar and sub-polar regions. The cruise companies certainly are not talking about it.

So, what am I talking about? It’s avian influenza caused by the circulating H5N1 subtype of the virus, aka High Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI), first reported in the wider Antarctic region as far back as 2022 and now likely widespread.

The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), instituted enhanced biosecurity protocols for the 2022/23 season in order to mitigate spread of the disease.

According to IAATO, avian influenza is naturally found in wild birds but are typically Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza (LPAI) viruses. They cause no clinical signs of disease in wild birds. More concerning are viral subtypes (H5 and H7) which can become highly pathogenic in domestic birds (poultry) then escape into wild populations.

Returning staff have reported to that landings in places like South Georgia - where there are vast breeding populations of seabirds - have been necessarily limited. It has also been reported that the stench of rotting carcasses is pronounced.

Scientists and researchers who would normally be conducting their annual projects have had their work cancelled.

“This is the first time I remember such reduced access to animal colonies since I started my Antarctic career in 1996,” says microbiologist Antonio Quesada del Corral, who manages the Spanish Antarctic research programme told, “Several projects were cancelled this year, because we wanted to reduce the risk of having an infection of people or being the vector that spreads sickness between different animal colonies. We had scheduled for next year more new projects on animal colonies — some of these are now likely not going to take place.”

Dr Marco Falchieri of the UK Animal and Plant Health Agency taking a sample from a dead seal in South Georgia, a British Overseas Territory © APHA

Of greater concern is the spread of the disease to sea mammals like seals. Tests conducted by scientist Dr Marco Falchieri attached to the UK’s Animal Plant Health Agency (APHA) showed positive for HPAI H5N1 in elephant seals, fur seals, brown skuas, kelp gulls and Antarctic terns.

Professor Ian Brown, APHA’s Director of Scientific Services, said in a UK Government media statement “Given Antarctica is such a unique and special biodiversity hotspot it is sad and concerning to see the disease spread to mammals in the region. If avian influenza continues to spread throughout the sub-Antarctic region this could significantly threaten the fragile ecosystem, and potentially put a number of very large populations of seabirds and sea mammals at risk.”

Adding this, the death of a polar bear from bird flu was confirmed in December by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, demonstrating this is not exclusively an Antarctic problem.

As the 2023/24 comes to a close, data is now being analysed and just how this ongoing event will impact Antarctic and Arctic tourism in the short- to medium- term is yet to be determined.

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