On 28 January 2010, a report detailing the state of conservation of Macquarie Island was submitted by the State Party. The report provides an overview of the implementation of the pest eradication plan, of rabbit numbers on the island, of pre and post eradication monitoring plans, of the impacts on seabirds of long-line fishing trials and of the status of the island as a Man and Biosphere Reserve.
a) Progress in the implementation of the pest eradication plan and status of the rabbit population
The State Party reports that the implementation of the Macquarie Island Pest Eradication Plan has begun and that poison baiting will commence in May 2010, followed by pest hunting with trained dogs. To date, all necessary environmental approvals for the plan have been received, key field eradication staff have been selected and hired, thirteen of the seventeen pest hunting dogs have reached interim certification, and bait, helicopter and shipping suppliers have been selected. The State Party notes that rabbit numbers peaked in 2005 at an estimated 148,200, and that in 2008 there were an estimated 79,700 rabbits on the island. The pest eradication and associated monitoring programmes are expected to run through November 2014, and that preliminary information as to the outcome will be provided in February 2013.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that the Australian and Tasmanian Governments should be commended on implementing the ambitious eradication plan for the invasive rabbits and rodents that are adversely impacting Macquarie Island’s Outstanding Universal Value and integrity. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider it crucial that the eradication proceed to schedule, and that it is demonstrated to be successful in completely eliminating all pests, leading to a full recovery of the island’s endemic vegetation and aiding the recovery of its threatened seabirds.
b) Pre and post eradication monitoring
The State Party notes that monitoring and biosecurity plans have been developed. The Monitoring Plan will run until completion of the project in November 2014 and will monitor the performance of baiting and ground hunting operations, rabbit presence, the impacts of helicopters on king penguin colonies, as well as the broader outcomes of the project on the ecology of Macquarie Island. The State Party highlights that wandering albatross nests will be carefully monitored, and that any bait within reach of chicks will be removed. The State Party further notes that 28 rabbit exclusion plots have been established to protect samples of undisturbed plants and provide a seed source from which vegetation on the island can be re-established. The Biosecurity Plan will enable monitoring of new alien plant and animal species, particularly at the main visitor landing sites, and should prevent the introduction or reintroduction of alien species.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN welcome the preparation of monitoring and biosecurity plans. However, IUCN notes that while the financial resources to monitor the implementation of the eradication plan are secured (output monitoring), it has received reports that funding has yet to be agreed for adequate post-eradication monitoring of ecological aspects such as vegetation recovery (outcome monitoring), which is key to demonstrating the effectiveness of the pest eradication activities. IUCN further notes that the monitoring program could also give specific consideration to the geological and geomorphologic values which were the primary reasons inscription on the World Heritage List. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider it important that the State Party rapidly secure the financial resources needed for adequate post-eradication outcome monitoring.
c) Impact on the island’s seabirds of long-line fishing trials
The State Party reports that several strictly managed long-line fishing trials around Macquarie Island have been operating for the past three seasons (2007-2010). These trials operate under comprehensive rules to protect seabirds, including a requirement to cease long-line fishing for the season if the seabird bycatch limit is exceeded. The State Party highlights that no seabird mortality resulting from long-line fishing has been observed during the trial period. The mitigation measures adopted by the trials are those required by the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels (of which Australia is a signatory). These mitigation measure include: i) night setting of fishing lines when seabirds are less active; ii) exclusive use of integrated-weight long-lines to ensure that baited hooks sink more quickly and birds are less likely to be caught; iii) 100% observer coverage; iv) blue dyed bait that is less visible to seabirds; v) paired plastic streamer lines to scare birds away from baited hooks; and vi) retention of all fish waste to eliminate seabird deaths at the stern of the vessel during waste discard. The State Party notes that a request to approve long-line fishing as an authorised fishing method in the region will be submitted in November 2010 as part of a strategic assessment of the Macquarie Island toothfish fishery.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note the positive results of the trials to date and consider that a strictly controlled level of responsible long-line fishing may be compatible with the values and integrity of Macquarie Island given the following conditions: i) long-line fishing mitigation measures continue to be strictly and effectively applied and enforced in line with the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels; ii) theimplementation and effectiveness of these measures is continually monitored and revised; and ii) if pre-established seabird by-catch levels are exceeded, all long-line fisheries operating in the region cease for the duration of the season, pending a review of the mitigation conditions. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN further note that the strategic assessment of the Macquarie Island toothfish fishery, which will evaluate the likely impacts of long-line fishing for the region, should be submitted to the World Heritage Centre prior to approving long-line fisheries consents, in line with Paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines.
d) Other conservation issues of concern – the impact of legal and illegal long-line fishing on Macquarie Island seabirds outside Australian waters
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note that the Macquarie Island seabirds, and particularly albatrosses, are threatened by legal and illegal long-line fishing when foraging and feeding outside Australian waters. Therefore, it is critical that Macquarie breeding seabirds are protected outside Australian waters. All State Parties involved in long-line fishing operations that may adversely affect Macquarie’s seabirds should explore options to abate seabird death resulting from their long-line fishing operations, particularly in known foraging areas. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN consider that all States Parties with such long-line fishing operations should be strongly encouraged to consider adhering to the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, which would require them to take specific mitigation measures to reduce the number of albatrosses and petrels killed by long-line fishing.
e) The status of Macquarie Island as a Man and Biosphere Reserve
The State Party acknowledges that Macquarie Island is not a functional biosphere given that it lacks human residents and will seek its withdrawal from the World Network of Biosphere Reserves. The World Heritage Centre and IUCN take note of the State Party’s initiative in withdrawing Macquarie Island from the World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
f) Other conservation issues of concern – dieback and possible extinction of the endemic Macquarie cushion plant
The State Party reports that dieback of the endemic Macquarie cushion plant (Azorella macquariensis) has emerged as a serious concern in 2009, with up to 90% of cushions affected in some locations. The Macquarie cushion is an important component of the island’s feldmark vegetation, which is located on stony soils above 500m. A number of measures have been implemented by the State Party to identify the cause of the dieback and prevent its spread including testing for pathogens and enhanced quarantine measures for tourists. As insurance measures, a small amount of seed was collected in autumn 2009 and sent to the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens and to the Millennium Seedbank project, the collection of living plants at the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens was supplemented, and an attempt is currently being made to establish an ex-situ population on the island near the ranger station. The State Party further notes that the Macquarie cushion has been listed as endangered under State legislation and that an application is pending to list the species as threatened under Commonwealth legislation.
The World Heritage Centre and IUCN are concerned by the unexplained dieback of the endemic Macquarie cushion plant. IUCN notes that given the current rate of dieback, the species could become extinct within a few years. As Macquarie cushion is the main structural component of the feldmark, its loss would cause severe modification to the island’s ecosystem and is likely to lead to major erosion problems and decline of associated species. IUCN notes that there is no indication of any dieback being recorded in other cushion plants worldwide and considers that: i) the cause of the dieback should be determined and addressed; ii) a larger ex situ conservation holding of seeds and living plants should be created by supplementing the collection of seed for long-term storage; and iii) assessments of remaining healthy cushion plants should be made in the summer of 2010.