Royal Society of Tasmania Winter Lectures 2010
“Macquarie Island on the World Stage”
A summary of the presentations...
It has become traditional for The Royal Society of Tasmania to host a Winter Lecture Series for the public. By courtesy of the University of Tasmania these have been held at the Sir Stanley Burbury Theatre in the University Centre. The series usually consists of a series of presentations over three months, on the third Tuesday of June, July and August.
This year The Royal Society of Tasmania focussed its Winter Lecture Series on the topic of Macquarie Island because it is 200 years since the island was ‘discovered’ on 11 July 1810.
The series took the form of three sessions, each of three speakers on Tuesday 15 June, 20 July and 17 August 2010. Each session was chaired by an eminent person with some association with the Island. Professor Patrick Quilty President of The Royal Society of Tasmania, of the School of Earth Sciences, University of Tasmania was overall co-ordinator.
Session 1: 15th June 2010
Sir Guy Green presided over the first session. Altogether apart from his formal roles in Tasmanian and Australian society, he has a strong Antarctic/sub-Antarctic interest and has visited the island while Governor of Tasmania. He instigated and guides a biennial international forum on the sub-Antarctic and the third of that series is to be held in Hobart early in August 2011.
The first session had three speakers
- Dr Garry Davidson (School of Earth Sciences and CODES, University of Tasmania) – Macquarie Island Foundations,
- Dr Roger Kellaway (School of Geography and Environmental Sciences, University of Tasmania ) – How Macquarie Island became – and remained – Tasmanian, and
- Bruce Hull (Australian Antarctic Division) – Mawson and Macquarie Island.
About 200 attended.
Davidson reviewed what is known of the geological history of Macquarie Island, the people involved in unravelling the history, the uniqueness of the island because of that history, and how what we now know contributes to, and is influenced by, the modern understanding of the way ocean basins evolve. It drew out the strong Tasmanian and international links in the story. Macquarie Island gains its distinctness because it is a piece of uplifted seafloor, and the best place on earth to study the composition and structure of the seafloor which is normally inaccessible while covering 70% of the earth’s surface. But it is true that the Island may not be typical seafloor and our understanding of where it fits in tectonic terms has changed significantly over the last ten years. Work continues.
Kellaway, in a shorter timescale (roughly 1820-1900), outlined the history of governance of the Island. It is still unclear, and no paperwork seems to exist, how the Island was first placed under the responsibility of the Governor of Tasmania (as Macquarrie Island) in 1824. By 1890, the Colonial Office in London had lost any memory of that record and cheerfully agreed that New Zealand could attempt to claim the island (for good management reasons). While New Zealand and most Tasmanian bureaucracy was happy with a transfer to New Zealand, the lower house in Tasmania rejected the idea because of the island’s good harbours, possible timber industry, and potential for use as a whaling base! It is a funny story and was well told.
Hull, who knows his Mawson well, drew out many little-known facets of the Mawson expedition – how his staff were appointed so late, how planning was not as good as it appears, that Macquarie Island was not part of his plans at all until needed as wireless relay station, and that Tasmanian approval to visit the island came very late. He reviewed the history of the main players on the Island at the time, both prior to and following their involvement, including Prof. T.T. Flynn about whom some less-than-complimentary comments were made by many. Many rare images were used and it presented aspects of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) in a new way.
The interesting aspects of the evening were the progression in timescales from geological, through 200 years of ownership history, to the much shorter human timescale of Mawson and his people. An unexpected and highly satisfying feature was that all speakers humanised their talks with discussions of the people.
Another gratifying aspect is that not all speakers knew each other beforehand but are now in contact.
Session 2: 17th July 2010
The second session was held on 20 July and was chaired by David O’Byrne MP, the minister in the Tasmanian Government responsible for Macquarie Island. Again, there were three speakers:
- Prof. Mark Hindell (Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), University of Tasmania) - History of Exploitation.
- Graeme Beech (Tasmanian parks and Wildlife Service) - Current Progress with Efforts to Eradicate Rabbits and Rodents from Macquarie Island.
- Dr Patricia Selkirk (Macquarie University) - Macquarie Island biota on the world stage.
About 100 attended.
Hindell asked a series of questions and tried to answer them. What was the former state of the Island? If we don’t know that (and we don’t) it is very difficult to know how remediation efforts are being effective. What was the fur seal that was exploited to extinction, at least local? We don’t know but the information from their interval ashore, quality of fur suggests the sub-Antarctic fur seal (Arctocephalus gazella) or a distinct species. How many were taken? The Macquarie Island contribution may have been approximately 200 000 of a total of about 800 000. New Zealand fur seal populations on the island are growing at present since the first record of one in 1946 and regular breeding since 1985 with a growth rate of 6% per year. What is the ‘normal’ population of Elephant Seals and what are populations doing at present? It is possible that the growth rate overshot its background level by 1950 and the current decline since is simply a case of returning to ‘normal’. King penguin population growth rate on the Isthmus is 66% per year after earlier extinction from the site.
Beech is Project Officer for the Pest Eradication Project and had been on the Island a few weeks before the lecture. The aim of the project is to eradicate rabbits, rats and mice from Macquarie Island. Up to 24 bird species are expected to benefit from the project. He illustrated his talk with video clippings of specialists on the Island showing the damage done to the Island by rabbits, especially since cats were eliminated, the damage that mice do to albatross chicks (footage from South Georgia), rats taking baits, and interviews with various people involved in the program on the Island. He showed the techniques of loading baits and their dispersal by helicopter. A map of the Island showed the high density, precision helicopter paths needed and partly carried out. Unfortunately, weather has not been kind in the limited time available for the baiting program, and the day after his talk, the program for the year had to be cancelled. Plans are to resurrect it next year.
Selkirk reviewed the evolution of Macquarie Island as and area deserving of conservation and protection, including a series of declarations as conservation area (1971), a wildlife reserve (1972), a Biosphere Reserve (1977), listing on the register of the National Estate (1977), declaration as a World Heritage Area (1997), and on the register of critical habitat for grey-headed and wandering albatrosses (2002). Recently, the Australian Government funded an Ecological Character Description of Macquarie Island as a wetland site. Consideration is being given to nominating it to the List of Wetlands of International Importance under the 1971 Ramsar. Issues currently being addressed include questions of how the biota arrived, dieback on Azorella macquariensis, the impact of climate change, especially on precipitation and changes in wind patterns, and the value of the Island as a monitoring site. The other aspect is the future of the Island and what will happen to the biota.
The general feeling was that it was an excellent night of highly relevant topics, well presented. The theme of wildlife dominated through the original status, current status and remediation, to the future.
Session 3: 20th August, 2010
The thirdsession was held on 17 August and was chaired by Ms Julie Collins MLA, federal member for Franklin. Macquarie Island falls in her electorate. In the normal way, there were three speakers:
- Mark Alcock (Geoscience Australia, Canberra) – Maritime jurisdiction around Macquarie Island.
- Dr Greg Ayers (Director, Bureau of Meteorology, Melbourne) – Macquarie Island as an observatory site
- Tom Maggs (Australian Antarctic Division) – Options for the future management of Macquarie Island.
About 120 attended.
Alcock reviewed the evolution of concepts of offshore territory since 1901 when Australia inherited the British idea of a three mile limit, through various stages based initially on resource value, through military value and eventually through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which includes the environment. He included discussion of the various levels of responsibility that attend each level of territorial claim and whether or not it includes the sea floor and what is below, or also the water column above. This was then related to the ability or otherwise of the claimant nation to limit fishing within various delineated zones. Much of the basis for the various claims has depended on the technology available to understand bathymetry of the region and the Macquarie Ridge region is now very well known following a series of multibeam surveys by a series of vessels. The area now claimed by Australia around the Island under various conventions is now about 500 000 km2. He concluded his talk with a flythrough in glorious colour of the seafloor features around the island including reference to the 7 km high scarp which is one of the world’s most spectacular landforms, all below sea level.
Ayers took the opportunity to review the work of the Bureau of Meteorology and some other agencies using Macquarie Island as an example. The Bureau has its own series of observatory functions but also provides support for others. He showed the value of this isolated site as a ground truth station for modelling of Australian and global weather patterns in the present day and followed with a review of longer term records from the Island showing the trends of current global change. He showed the records of ozone content in the stratosphere and, while Macquarie Island normally is north of the region affected by springtime ozone depletion, the region has lobes that occasionally pass over the Island. Air sampling provides data on changes in atmospheric composition and how that integrates with global and Australian patterns. The exchange of atmospheric gases is having an effect on oceanic acidity and the ability of some planktonic organisms to build their skeletons in the future. A Nuclear Test Ban monitoring function is being developed on the Island at a cost of some $4 million which includes building extra power generation capability. He concluded with an excellent video of the oceanographic circulation patterns over the Southern Hemisphere to integrate all the data.
Maggs reviewed many aspects of the value of the Island not covered in any of the talks so far. He included reference to many initiatives in which Australia has been important diplomatically and in implementing action. He referred to the convention on albatross protection. These birds do not respect marine boundaries and commonly are taken as by-catch in long-line fishery. Concern for falling numbers (many species breed on Macquarie Island and southern Australia and steps have been taken to limit by-catch). He referred also to the rodent eradication project as a state/federal cooperative arrangement. The question of ownership of the Island – state or federal - arose. Tasmania could pass responsibility to the Commonwealth but the Commonwealth cannot initiate such a proposal. It raises the issue of a Commonwealth funded and operated facility on state territory and the sharing or otherwise of funding. The Island facility is expensive to operate partly because of the cost of upkeep of facilities in a hostile environment. He closed by raising a series of options such as running the Island as a tourist facility to pay the costs; ceding costs entirely to Tasmania; Tasmania ceding the Island to the Commonwealth; or having the operation passed to a private operator under contract.
A feature of this session was integration. Alcock and Ayers drew on many different disciplines of science and technology to make their case and Maggs brought them all together in a policy setting.
The third session was the icing on the cake and concluded what has been a very successful exposure of Macquarie Island to public and responsible members of government.
The three sessions on the topic were very successful in making available to an interested public a coverage of the major aspects that make Macquarie Island such an important site. The talks covered all aspects of the science; evolution of the site as a conservation zone in many treaty instruments; its wildlife and steps taken to protect it while eradicating introduced species; history of exploitation; value as a monitoring site; various aspects of territorial claims (including who should own it – Tasmania, Commonwealth of Australia, or even New Zealand); and how all aspects are to be included in policy development for management. There was a logical sequence to the evenings.
It is hoped that The Royal Society of Tasmania also gained publicity and may attract some new members.
A very pleasing feature was the ability to interest those influential in the political sphere of the Island. Feedback from Mr O’Byrne and Ms Collins has been excellent.
The lectures were recorded on video tape and the record will be made available, in part at least on the University of Tasmania website, at the Antarctic Division, for Macquarie Island, and through The Royal Society of Tasmania. A two-page summary of each of the talks will be bound together and made available at minimal cost.
Patrick G. Quilty AM
President, The Royal Society of Tasmania
27 August 2010
And a special thanks to Pat for making a copy of these notes available to the ANARE Club.
The 2010 RST Winter Lecture Series on Macquarie Island is now available on the UTAS website:
• go to the uni homepage http://www.utas.edu.au/
• in the lower right hand corner click on 'Visit Channel UTAS'
• Click on the link 'More General Interest'
• Scroll down to 'Macquarie Island to the World Stage'
• The direct link to the first lecture is: http://www.utas.edu.au/channelutas/