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Public Law 95-541, the Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978 as amended by Antarctic Science, Tourism and Conservation Act of 1996 (Public Law 104-227), requires your involvement from the time you write a proposal to the time you leave Antarctica.
The law protects native mammals, birds, and plants and their ecosystems. The law applies to all U.S. citizens, whether or not they go to Antarctica with the U.S. Antarctic Program. It applies to all expeditions to Antarctica that originate from the United States.
The Act makes it unlawful, unless authorized by permit,

  • to take native mammals, birds, or plants; including harming associated ecosystems
  • to engage in harmful interference
  • to enter designated special areas
  • to introduce species
  • to introduce substances designated as pollutants
  • to discharge designated pollutants
  • to import certain Antarctic items into the USA

The Act provides penalties of up to $11,000 and 1-year imprisonment for each violation. Other penalties could include removal from Antarctica, rescission of a grant, or sanctions by your employer.

The book Antarctic Conservation Act of 1978 (Public Law 95-541), with Regulations, Management Plans With Maps for Special Areas, Permit Application Form, and Protocol on Environmental Protection (NSF 01-151) is free from NSF or available online at

The most current information on Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) and Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMAs) is maintained by the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), which consists of representative from all Parties to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.  Detailed descriptions of sites, maps, and management plans are available at

The following paragraphs discuss major provisions of the Antarctic Conservation Act, which is the U.S. law implementing adherence to the international Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.

Taking native mammals or birds

It is unlawful, unless authorized by permit, to take Antarctic native mammals, birds, or plants. To take means to remove, harass, molest, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, restrain, or tag a native mammal or bird or to try to do so.

If you are on the sea ice near McMurdo and try to hustle a Weddell seal into position for a photograph, you are breaking the law. If you are an ornithologist with a grant to band giant petrels, you may not do so until you apply for and receive a permit. A grant and a permit are two different things. Consult "Information for Proposers" on web site ( for details on ACA permits.

Entering designated special areas

A number of precisely defined places in Antarctica are designated under the Antarctic Treaty, and in the U.S. law, as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas. You must have a compelling need to enter one of these areas, and you must have a permit to do so.

Some of these special areas are near stations, such as Arrival Heights next to McMurdo Station or Litchfield Island near Palmer Station. Other special areas like the Linneas Terrace are in remote locations in which geologists, for example, may want to work. Maps and management plans for these sites are available at

Introducing species

Introducing non-indigenous species to Antarctica (i.e., south of 60°S latitude) generally is prohibited. However, if your work requires it, a permit may be issued for the following species under controlled conditions:

  • domestic plants
  • laboratory animals and plants including phytoplankton, viruses, bacteria, yeast, and fungi

Living non-indigenous species of birds may not be introduced into Antarctica.

If you are uncertain whether the species you want to take to Antarctica is considered an introduced species, please contact the Program Director relevant to the proposed research or the Permit Officer at NSF (

Introducing substances designated as pollutants

The Antarctic Conservation Act regulates what types of materials can be taken to Antarctica and specifies how these materials must be used, stored, and disposed of.

Banned substances. These substances are banned from Antarctica:

  • pesticides (except those required for science or hygiene: a permit is needed)
  • polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • nonsterile soil
  • polystyrene beads and plastic chips

Designated pollutants.  Designated pollutants include any substance listed by name or characteristic (flammable, corrosive, reactive, toxic) in the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and other U.S. regulations.  Waste containing designated pollutants is Antarctic hazardous waste and has to be used, stored, and disposed of in controlled ways.

Many research and industrial supplies — and common substances like lighter fluid and fingernail polish remover — at U.S. Antarctic stations are designated pollutants.  Designated pollutants must be permitted to enter Antarctica.  NSF's prime Antarctic support contractor annually compiles an application for a master permit to cover common items.  The task requires the cooperation of grantees and is part of preparing for research in Antarctica.

At the proposal stage, it is enough to think about how to minimize the types and amounts of substances you need, to substitute benign substances for designated pollutants wherever possible, and to handle the designated pollutants that you must take. In the proposal and, if you get a grant, in your later dealings with the prime Antarctic support contractor, err on the side of disclosure.

Discharging designated pollutants

Some categories of waste must be removed from Antarctica. The list includes radioactive materials, batteries, fuel, heavy metals, lubricants, treated timbers, plastic (except low-density storage bags), solid noncombustibles, and drums that held oil or chemicals.

The U.S. Antarctic Program employs specialists to handle and remove designated pollutants in accordance with the regulations. Grantees receive assistance and instructions in the Antarctic, but are required to keep track of the designated pollutants they use, to sort and store them according to instructions provided, and to turn the waste over to U.S. Antarctic Program officials in accordance with specified procedures.
Open burning is prohibited in Antarctica. If your proposal will include the operation of a remote field camp, plan to haul all your waste back to the station or ship from which you began your sortie.

Import into and export from the USA

In the United States it is unlawful, unless authorized by regulation or permit, to have or sell or to import or export native mammals, birds, or plants. An application for a permit must demonstrate that the import or export would further the purposes for which the species was taken or collected, demonstrate that the import or export is consistent with the purposes of the Antarctic Conservation Act, and provide other details that are needed for evaluation of the permit application.

Mailing items to or from the United States constitutes import or export.

Other Requirements

Mineral samples for scientific purposes normally may be collected and removed from Antarctica without an Antarctic Conservation Act permit. However, the Act requires a permit for "any activity that results in the significant adverse modification of habitats of any species or population of native mammal, bird, plant, or invertebrate." The Antarctic Protection Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-594) states, "it is unlawful for any person to engage in, finance, or otherwise knowingly provide assistance to any Antarctic mineral resource activity."

Meteorites. A U.S. regulation governing Antarctic meteorites ensures that meteorites in Antarctica will be collected for scientific research purposes only. U.S. expedition organizers who plan to collect meteorites in Antarctica will ensure that any specimens collected must be properly collected, handled, documented, and curated to preserve their scientific value.

Applying to NSF for a permit

If NSF funds your proposal, an Antarctic Conservation Act permit may be required for the proposed activities. You are the person who initially decides if a permit is needed. If there is any doubt, contact an Office of Polar Programs science program director, the Permit Officer (

If a permit appears necessary, send the Antarctic Conservation Act Application and Permit Form to the National Science Foundation at the address shown on the permit. Be sure NSF gets it no later than 90 days before fieldwork is to start. During the 90 days, a summary of your application is published in the Federal Register, and the public is given 30 days to comment on it. The Foundation evaluates the public comments and performs an internal review. It then approves the application, approves it with modifications, or denies it. NSF will not allow work in Antarctica until a permit either has been approved and issued or is found to be not required. You may not conduct research or other activities that require a permit unless you have a permit. An application cannot be made retroactive.

Other permits

Additional permits may be required for certain activities, such as research involving marine mammals or importation of bird or mammal tissue, plants or soils.


Proposal Preparation Information for download or printing (PDF file, 296 kB)


You must have Adobe® Acrobat® Reader® to view PDF files. To obtain a free copy go to the NSF plug-in page ( and click the Adobe Reader link.

To request a paper copy contact David Friscic, Office of Polar Programs , (703) 292-8014, or e-mail for additional information.

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Adelie penguins at Cape Crozier, Ross Island. Cape Crozier is one of over 70 Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) and Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMAs). To enter these areas an Antarctic Conservation Act permit is required. For a complete list ASPAs see the the Antarctic Conservation Act on the NSF web site. (NSF/USAP photo by Nate Biletnikoff)

Last updated: 01/28/2015