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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Future of the Poles

To Save the Southern Polar Environment--Dump the Antarctic Treaty

How letting nations establish territorial claims on Antarctica could save its threatened marine ecosystems.



© Alexander Hafemann / istockphoto.com

Since 2003, fish biologist Arthur Devries of the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign has not caught a single adult Antarctic toothfish—a species sometimes sold at grocery stores as Chilean sea bass. In the 1970s Devries would catch as many as 500 adults in a season as part of his research into the proteins that keep their blood from freezing.

Or so Devries and David Ainley of the environmental consulting firm H. T. Harvey Associates reported this year to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The Commission, established in 1982 and tasked with regulating the fisheries governed by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty (which protects all the territory below 60 degrees south latitude and oceans south of the Polar Front), had a meeting of the Ecosystem Monitoring and Management working group in Moscow in July. In advance of that meeting, more than two dozen "concerned Ross Sea researchers" joined Ainley and Devries in a formal letter demanding a moratorium on fishing over the Ross Sea continental shelf and a reduction in quotas along the continental slope.

The Commission, scientists complain, has failed to live up to its name. Ainley says that the decline of this large, slow-growing, bottom-dwelling fish has knocked the Antarctic ecosystem out of whack and resulted in killer whales dropping in numbers, whereas silverfish have increased in abundance to compete with penguins and whales for crystal krill. Quite simply, he says, "The Southern Ocean is a mess."

Meanwhile, conservationists and policymakers have begun to voice concern about the future of the Antarctic Treaty in an oil-challenged world. The agreement set aside preexisting territorial claims of seven countries and reserved the continent for science and environmental protection, barring nations from rushing to drill for oil there. But pirate fishing boats have long been wreaking havoc on the southern oceans, and reduced sea ice has eased coastal access and stripped wildlife of their last refuge. Antarctica is headed down the path of becoming a free-market free-for-all.

Antarctica is already big business for tour operators. In the past decade the number of tourists in the area has jumped to 40,000 a year with little regulatory oversight. In 2007 one rickety Liberian-flagged tourist vessel sank off the Antarctic Peninsula and 154 passengers and crew members had to be rescued by a Norwegian cruise ship. Late last year, Britain and Australia submitted extensions to their claims of the seabed around Antarctic territories—reasserting their rights just in case the ban on drilling is one day lifted. Oil prices were at an all-time high last summer, and many observers wonder how long the Ross and the Weddell Seas—which hold some 50 billion barrels of oil—will remain the world's most pristine oceans.

"As we begin to run out of oil and gas, there's going to be increased exploration for areas where it is not being extracted," says Hugh Ducklow a biologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. "The treaty is going to be vulnerable."

But would the demise of the Treaty really be such a bad thing for environmental conservation in Antarctica? The Commission has proved toothless when it comes to the toothfish. Last week in response to the scientists' demands, CCAMLR made a small step in banning bottom trawling in two 150 square mile areas, but it has skirted the issue of designating marine protected areas that would make the most sensitive regions off limits to all forms of fishing. Considering that some treaty signatories will continue to operate fishing vessels under flags of convenience and poachers are unabashedly nabbing krill and fish, establishing national ownership of Antarctic waters may be a better route to engender sustainability.

Martin Pratt, an expert on maritime boundaries at Durham University in England, says that the only environmental protection afforded under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea relates to so-called Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in waters within a territory extending 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from a country's coastline. "In Antarctica," he says, "there's this problem where states have claims, but those claims are frozen and the question is whether establishing an EEZ represents a violation of the treaty."

The current debate about the treaty's stability began in October 2007 when the U.K. announced that it would file a claim under the Law of the Sea extending the seabed boundaries of their Antarctic territory based on the extent of the continental shelf. The British claim already overlaps with Argentina and Chile, heightening the potential for a territorial dispute.

Argentineans are still fuming over their defeat in 1982 when they tried to reclaim South Georgia Island and the Falkland Islands from the U.K.—the closest thing we've had to an Antarctic war. Although Britain insists it will not contravene restrictions against oil, gas and mineral exploration in Antarctica, Robin Churchill, an expert in international law at the University of Dundee in England, says the move has the potential to be "quite destabilizing." That would be shame, he says, because "the Treaty has promoted scientific research by opening Antarctica up for any scientist to go anywhere, fostering a spirit of cooperation."

In February, Australia—with U.N. approval—expanded its seabed borders along the Kerguelen Plateau around Heard and McDonald islands, pushing into the Antarctic Treaty jurisdiction. Although Australia says that mineral and petroleum exploration is out of the question, some fear that this move could open the door to trawling on the seabed and bioprospecting in the region.

"Legally, it may be defensible," says Alan Hemmings, a specialist on Antarctic governance at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. "Politically, it's more problematic."

Ironically, Australia's move may serve to strengthen rather than weaken environmental protection. Back in 2002, an Australian research boat sent a Japanese whaling vessel scurrying back to its mother ship after it was spotted inside Australia's EEZ near Prydz Bay. Last December, Australia sent the Ocean Viking to monitor Japan's whaling fleet in Antarctica and by late January, an Australian federal court had ruled that it was illegal for Japanese to whale within 200 nautical (230 statute) miles of their Antarctic territory. Pratt says it is still a "tricky legal problem" and "an issue [that will] presumably [be] tested in court somewhere, sometime."

Farther north, in the southern Indian Ocean, Australia runs regular patrols around Heard Island, France patrols the Kerguelen Islands, and South Africa has a marine-protected area around its Prince Edward Islands, which are right along the northern boundary of the treaty area. Ainley says that patrolling these sovereign territories—which partially overlap with the treaty regime—is the only enforcement of fishing regulations in the region.

The Antarctic Treaty has provided a model for conservation of the terrestrial environment, but biologists agree that the marine environment has suffered under Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

The Commission (created by the CCAMLR) provides licenses to vessels fishing in the Southern Ocean and requires licensed boats to have an observer on board to monitor catch levels. It also has the ability to set up marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean, such as one proposed for the Ross Sea. But it has yet to do so and, in general, adoption of fishing regulations proposed in the Commission's scientific working groups has moved at a glacial pace in the face of opposition from the powerful fishing industry.

Hemmings says that proposals for Marine Protected Areas in Antarctica are "lost in a sandpit of discussion or whittled away by Russia, Japan, South Korea, and a number of other fishing states." Ainley says the newly designated vulnerable marine ecosystems are "relative pin-pricks" and it's not clear if this represents progress in establishing the marine protected areas that Antarctica desperately needs.

With improved technologies and a reduction in sea ice around Antarctica, Hemmings, Ainley and many other experts believe its fisheries will be further threatened without policy changes. Today, even the krill are under threat from countries such as Norway, which want to use them as feed for their domestic salmon farms.

When asked to respond to the assertion that the Commission had failed, Rennie Holt, who sits on the Fish Stock Assessment working group, said only "Being involved in CCAMLR during the last 20 years, I certainly believe you have arrived at an incorrect conclusion. Unfortunately, I do not have time to provide support for my views."

Allowing countries to establish no-take fisheries in their Antarctic EEZs is a provocative idea—and it may pose future troubles for the Antarctic Treaty—but it may be the only way to avoid a tragedy of the commons. Dumping the treaty would let countries protect and manage their own coastal fisheries, thereby allowing their internal political machinery to decide the fate of the Antarctic environment within their slices of the pie.

The Antarctic Treaty's greatest environmental achievement—putting the southernmost continent off-limits to mineral exploration—is strictly theoretical. Fifty years from now, oil and mineral exploration in the Antarctic may become economically viable and have the potential to cause great harm, but it is unlikely that treaty signatories would stand firm in the face of the great energy crisis and the great profits that await. Meanwhile, the problems of today are not properly being addressed.

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