Biosecurity fears after Antarctic tourists sow barley

TOURISTS have been caught sowing barley in Antarctica, in a biosecurity breach that has drawn attention to calls for tighter controls on polar tourism.

Two members of a gospel group travelling with a Canadian tour company were seen dispersing barley seeds as they hiked on Deception Island in the Antarctic Peninsula, where rising temperatures are leading to increased plant growth on previously barren ground.

The incident was reported by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators to the annual Antarctic Treaty meeting in Hobart yesterday.

Tighter supervision of tourists who land on the continent, including official inspections, and an outright ban on the use of very large cruise ships, are being sought at the meeting by the umbrella environment group, Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.

Barley is a highly adaptable crop, growing north to the Arctic Circle, according to the US-based Whole Grains Council. The attempt to sow it in Antarctica came last summer despite a briefing for tourists, including the gospel group, on the ship MS Expedition.

"The dispersed seeds were collected and the severity of the offence explained to the passengers," IAATO reported.

The incident brought to light a similar act on the same island nine years ago described by US evangelist Mary Craig.

"We scattered and released the seeds of the harvest of souls to be saved," she wrote on her website of the 2003 expedition.

Following a decline due to the global economic slowdown and a ban on heavy fuel oil in Antarctic waters that affected big passenger ships, tourist numbers are rising again. It is estimated 34,950 tourists will go to the Antarctic next summer.

The use of very large cruise ships on Antarctic routes has slowed with the fuel ban, but the 90,000-tonne Celebrity Infinity is due to make two voyages next season carrying about 3000 people per trip.

Australia and other countries have objected to the use of these vessels in the past. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition believes some forms of tourism should be prohibited.