Bioprospecting in the frozen continent
26 Apr 2013|

Guest editor Anthony Bergin

For generations of expeditioners the story of Antarctic research has been set against the orange backdrop of the Aurora Australis.  The Gillard Government is taking initial steps towards a new Antarctic icebreaker to replace the ageing Research and Supply Vessel Aurora Australis.

If I were an Australian scientist excited by the prospect of novelty in Antarctic-derived organic material or processes, I might have a tough time getting there, collecting my samples and bringing them back into Australia for processing. But the restrictions wouldn’t be insurmountable. Antarctic biota and processes aren’t especially protected from the science of biological prospecting. Scientists are virtually given ‘free’ access to prospect for the purposes of scientific research, provided they play by the rules.

The rules are few and relatively simple. The government runs an Australian Antarctic Science Program that I can apply to for support. I don’t need to be a government scientist; I can work in a university, for example, which may or may not have an affiliation with an end user such as a pharmaceutical company. If I were clever enough to win a grant, I’d have access to a berth on a ship or a seat on a plane going south. I’d have a bunk at a station and be able to roam the environs in search of my soil/water/organism sample. Then I’d bring my sample material back to my laboratory in Australia, in compliance with the quarantine rules, and start the gruelling process of looking for something novel that might have a commercial application.

As a bioprospector with an AAS grant, I need do little more than complete an environmental impact assessment of my proposed research before I go. If the research involves nothing more than collecting a small sample—say 1 kilogram of soil from an area that isn’t subject to special protection through the Antarctic Specially Protected Area program and subject to a management plan—then the assessment’s straightforward. I’d declare that my research would cause no more than a negligible impact on the environment and I’d be permitted (by an authorised officer at the Australian Antarctic Division) to proceed. If I wanted to sample soil from a protected area, the process would be more involved, but not ultimately prohibitive.

While I’m bioprospecting in Antarctica, I’m under the jurisdiction of the Australian Government and almost all Australian laws apply to me there. These include the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980, which governs my behaviour in Antarctica, and laws about importing material into Australia.

The first phase of biological prospecting involves looking for novelty in material or a process. Collecting sample material from the Southern Ocean or the Antarctic continent isn’t an environmentally harmful activity, provided I observe all protocols relating to the prevention of the introduction of alien species, for example. As an experienced scientist, I’d of course take every precaution to prevent the unintentional contamination of my origin site and samples.

But still, bioprospecting rings alarm bells for some commentators. Everything that occurs in Antarctica is viewed primarily through an environmental lens, and most of Australia’s efforts at policy and law revolve around ensuring that I have the least impact on the vulnerable environment. Quite simply, bioprospecting doesn’t (yet) fit into the category of a harmful activity. So why would bioprospecting need further policy consideration or even further regulation?

Existing regulations cope very well with the present level of sample collection, and krill harvested for their omega-3 oil is a case in point. It makes no difference that the krill harvest is ultimately used for human food, aquaculture feed or nutraceutical or pharmaceutical applications, since it’s regulated by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources as a fishing activity.

If the Australian Government were really concerned about Antarctic biological material or processes being exploited at an unreasonable level, it could consider—either unilaterally or in concert with the other 27 Antarctic Treaty consultative parties—schemes such as the payment of fees by commercial bioprospectors into a common fund to support Antarctic science, royalty payments into the same fund for commercially successful products, and an open-access sample receptacle for common usage. These suggestions were made 10 years ago when the topic was first being discussed in treaty meetings. But the only policy decision emanating from the treaty parties has been that biological prospecting doesn’t need regulation beyond what’s in place now.

In fact, considering these suggestions for the branding of Antarctic material—a concept readily understood by the marketers of products such as krill oil ‘from the pristine waters of the Southern Ocean’—may well be a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The industry has already begun, patents have been filed, and the hands-off approach by the treaty parties suggests that they believe the existing regulatory system is the appropriate framework for managing biological prospecting, most particularly, sample collection.

Julia Jabour is leader of the ocean and Antarctic governance program, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania. Image courtesy of Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities’ Antarctic Division.