Gough Island Restoration 2021 gets underway
Six months after having made the devastating decision to postpone the 2020 restoration of Gough Island, our team is back in strength and starting to gear up for what we hope will be a 2021 mouse eradication attempt.
We continue to operate within a highly uncertain set of circumstances, but it is fair to say we now have a greater understanding of the likely procedures we will need to build into a 2021 operation. Whilst the operation itself will be little changed, the need to quarantine everyone setting off to Gough or entering South Africa means we have a much greater lead in time for every aspect of the preparatory off-island work. Of course, the safety of the South African weather station staff based on Gough, the population of Tristan da Cunha, our team members and those with whom they come into contact is paramount. But this has serious implications for several aspects of the work – most noticeably, cost. Some things that should have taken five days to complete in a pre-COVID-19 world will now take 35, for example.
We are in no doubt that the project could not have proceeded this year and that our decision to postpone was the right one. To paraphrase New Zealand’s world-leading Island Eradication Advisory Group, hundreds of things have to go right for an eradication operation to succeed and just a single thing going wrong can cause it to fail. The spanner COVID-19 threw into the 2020 operation was a rather large one, thrown too late and too quickly for us to adapt. Although we had one team already on island and another quite literally about to step aboard a Gough-bound vessel, the third team (not due on island for several more weeks) was spread disparately across four continents in countries with closed or closing borders. We had no alternative but to call time on a 2020 operation.
Postponement was devastating for the whole team – for some a missed opportunity of a lifetime was added to the grim reality that another 2 million or so chicks and eggs would fail to fledge on Gough this year. One of our Gough-based scientists filmed this short message about the harsh realities of the postponement for Tristan albatross (NB: the figures given in this video are true only on the day of filming). And things become more desperate still for the likes of the MacGillivray’s prion, with yet another year of 0% fledging success at our monitored colony.
The first of last seasons MacGillivray's prion chicks in our monitoring colony Prion Cave (A.Osborne)
It is of huge credit to the team and our partners that we are even able to contemplate a 2021 operation. We owe thanks to our many funders who have been understanding about the delay in delivery and even dug deeper into their pockets to try and help make 2021 possible. Our appeal to RSPB members had only just launched when we had to take the decision to postpone – despite knowing we couldn’t go ahead this year, many people continued to donate leading to one of our most successful appeals in recent history. We are still welcoming donations here.
But we take nothing for granted. The postponement and the new realities of managing COVID-19 risks mean that the increase in project costs are substantial. With a now very considerable funding gap of £3M we cannot simply assume that the operation will go ahead next year, despite the fact the first ‘on the ground’ practical work towards a 2021 operation gets underway later this week with the sailing of the S.A. Agulhas II to Gough Island (more on this in the next few days). We will shortly start incurring some of the larger unrecoverable costs of a 2021 operation and all our eyes will be on the series of ‘go’ / ‘no-go’ decision points we have put in place preceding each of these financial commitments. We have only one shot at this operation and believe 2021 may be our best chance – although a postponement to 2022 could be necessary if there is a second wave of international borders closing, but this will only be viable if we avoid incurring too many of 2021’s costs.
In the meantime, we will be restarting our Facebook and Twitter accounts and will post news updates on our website also. Our team will continue full steam ahead on preparations for 2021, hopefully placing us in the best position to pass each of our crucial decision points.
We’d like to say thank you to all supporters of the Gough Island Restoration Programme and thank you for your patience in these last few months whilst we have fallen silent. Much has been going on behind the scenes to repatriate our team on Gough (which you can read about here), to put in place fresh contracts for personnel, vessels, helicopters and insurance for next year, as well as to consider how we might be able to reduce the now potentially crippling funding gap. Our 2020 charter vessel Evohe finally arrived back in her home port in mid-July having sailed 48,000km – 8,000km more than the Earth’s circumference! Gough 2021 will not be easy, but we have some of the best people in the world supporting us.
View of Gough Island and the South African weather station by drone (C.Jones)
The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in South Africa, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, and Island Conservation . The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.