35 years on, is the deal to protect Antarctica’s oceans working?

A US Coast Guard icebreaker cuts a swathe through the icy the Southern Ocean earlier this year, on its way to rendezvous with a stricken fishing vessel. Allyson Conroy/US Coast Guard/Wikimedia Commons

Thirty-five years since the birth of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the agreement that aims to keep the ecosystem in the seas around Antarctica safe from harm, member nations are this week meeting in Santiago, Chile, to assess their responsibilities.

The symposium, hosted jointly by Chile, Australia and the United States, will take stock of how the convention is meeting its aim, set out back in 1980, to conserve Antarctic marine living resources, and to safeguard the environment and protect the integrity of the ecosystem of the seas surrounding Antarctica – an area defined in the convention as everywhere south of the Antarctic Convergence.

There are plenty of issues to talk about, from pirate fishing vessels, to the resurgence in interest in krill fishing, and the impacts on the ocean from the thinning of the Antarctic ice sheet and ocean acidification.

A decade of progress?

This week’s meeting follows a decade on from a similar symposium held in the Chilean city of Valdivia in 2005.

That meeting was set against the background of considerable levels of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, and high levels of seabird by-catch in Antarctic fisheries during the 1990s and early 2000s. Measures taken to combat these two important conservation threats were bearing fruit, and the participants in the symposium were able both to reflect on their successes and to assess critically the future challenges.

High on the list of “future challenges” identified in 2005 were:

• establishing marine protected areas; • taking action on destructive fishing practices; • improving enforcement of fishing laws and regulations; • understanding trends and responses to climate change; • improving the integration of science into decision-making.

Has the convention achieved those aims in the past ten years? It is fair to say that the scorecard is mixed, although largely positive. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing has substantially declined, but there is still a small rump of recidivists flying flags of convenience and attempting to dodge port state confiscation of their catches.

The 25 members (24 countries, plus the European Union) that make up the Commission formed to deliver the aims of the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) meet each year in Hobart, Australia, to discuss and make international laws that can help tackle these issues.

So far, member nations have taken action against destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling, but there is still a lack of regular monitoring and assessment of the environmental impacts of all fishing activities.

While decisions over Antarctic fishing are broadly informed by science, there is plenty of room for improvement in the way science and the “precautionary approach” to setting fishing limits are incorporated into the process.

There has also been little routine analysis of trends and responses of the ecosystem to climate change, and long, drawn-out and inconclusive discussions on establishing Antarctic marine protected areas have been a recurring feature of the past half-decade of annual meetings.

What does the future hold?

To a large extent, the biggest threats to Antarctic conservation remain the same: adverse impacts of fisheries; environmental damage, disease and habitat destruction; and climate change.

Unlike regional fisheries management organisations, which are focused principally on the management of fishing and fisheries, the CCAMLR convention’s mandate is first and fundamentally to conserve and protect Antarctica’s ecosystem. In order to ensure this objective, CCAMLR has since its inception championed precaution in its work: managing risks, rather than waiting for a species or environment to be threatened; making decisions on the best available science, rather than waiting for scientific certainty (which will never arrive); and ensuring that the whole ecosystem is taken into account in decisions, rather than just a targeted fishery.

It will be fundamentally important for the convention’s member countries to uphold the precautionary approach, particularly with regard to decisions about fisheries management, and to stay committed to using the best available scientific advice.

In recent years, this precautionary approach has been challenged by some countries insisting that science must demonstrate a “threat” that has to be managed before, for example, establishing a marine protected area or taking some other management action. This is in direct contradiction to the precaution that the convention has been lauded for ever since its inception – taking action before it’s too late.

Antarctica has the promise of being the least disrupted marine ecosystem in the world. But its future conservation can only be assured through the unswerving dedication of all Antarctic countries to uphold the precautionary approach to protecting it. Only then can the Southern Ocean ecosystem remain relatively intact.

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