How will Maritime Regulations Impact Antarctic Wildlife?

Published Nov 14, 2014 12:37 AM by Wendy Laursen

The 1770s were a turning point for Antarctic wildlife. Explorers paved the way for the fur seal trade and the region’s birds and penguins began to be harvested for food and oil. By the 1870s, whaling added to the impact on the region’s wildlife and led to the destruction of several Southern Ocean populations.

By 1919, Sir Douglas Mawson was calling for greater wildlife protection, and it is a call still heard today as the fishing, tourism and scientific communities have a growing impact in the region.

Dr Eric Woehler of the University of Tasmania in Australia gathered colleagues together to speculate what the future holds for Antarctica over the next 50 years. The results of their investigation were published this year: Human Impacts to Antarctic Wildlife: Predictions and Speculations for 2060 in Antarctic Futures: Human engagement with the Antarctic Environment.

The presence of people can destroy or disturb nesting birds and breeding seals, shipping accidents can lead to oiling events, and animals can ingest or become entangled in plastics and marine debris. Some animals become habituated to human presence but for others, a single aircraft over-flight can lead to catastrophic breeding failure. Significantly, the breeding season for most birds and mammals in the Antarctic and Subantarctic corresponds with the annual summer peak in human activities in the area.

Woehler and his co-authors call for the adoption of the Precautionary Principle in all aspects of human activities in Antarctica. A precautionary approach to risk management means that if an action or policy could harm to the environment, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action. 

For example, Woehler calls for an increase in biosecurity and quarantine measures, both inward and outward, for all visitors and all modes of transport. “There is a need to increase prophylactic measures as more people visit the Antarctic using faster means of transportation that allow a greater range of invasive species, including infectious disease-causing agents, to survive the transit period.”

The Precautionary Principle should also be applied to fisheries’ catch rates, say the authors. This would allow fishing activities to lead to at most a 50 percent reduction in spawning biomass of predatory species and a 25 percent reduction in foraging species.

The authors acknowledge the potential for mineral extraction in the Antarctic, possibly before 2060. While there is currently a ban on mineral resource activities, they see the situation as politically tenuous, although a predicted lack of financial imperatives to extract relatively expensive Antarctic resources may see little motivation for some time.

Not only is tourism growing, says Woehler, it is also diversifying with access to more destinations and more activities including kayaking, mountain climbing and snow boarding. By 2060, the researchers anticipate that around 160,000 people could be visiting the Antarctic mainland each year, some in large cruise vessels such as the Golden Princess that carries around 3,800 passengers and crew.

As Antarctic tourism is mainly ship-based, much of its regulation currently comes from international shipping law. Additionally, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties collaborate on formal regulation via the national legislation of flag states, and the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) voluntarily regulates the industry on a day-to-day basis.
Co-author Dr Julia Jabour at the University of Tasmania believes that a concept found in the now-expired 1988 Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities will enhance the current management system to ensure protection of the environment into the future. “The inability to enforce Antarctic-specific law universally can, in fact, be used to strengthen tourism management and regulation in the future.” She proposes that tourism operators should have sponsoring states, similar to that agreed for resource development companies in the expired convention.

“It could mean that states party to the Antarctic Treaty, that have a genuine and substantial link with a tourism operator, could sponsor that operator. However, and this is the most significant aspect, a sponsoring state could be held strictly liable for the actions of the tourism operator.” 

This means they would be required to take all steps necessary to ensure compliance with relevant regulations and to punish breaches. “If the sponsoring state concept were adopted, the assumption would be that any vessels conducting tourism and non-governmental activity outside the specific regulatory framework would essentially be conducting illegal, unreported and unregulated activities. This is how the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources perceives fishing activities undertaken outside its regulatory framework.”

Jabour believes such a scheme would boost environmental protection, introduce much stronger liability for environmental damage and help to secure the safety of life at sea.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.