Antarctic Polar Regions | Protecting Antarctica

Political punch-ups a more prudent path

Not many people know this, but the term "environment" does not even exist in the articles of the Treaty signed in Washington in December 1959. The only mention of the environment was in article IX, and this simply proposed that consultative meetings be held at a later date to "study, formulate and recommend measures to government aimed at ensuring that the principles and pursuit of the objectives of this Treaty are complied with, and in particular the measures relating to the protection and conservation of the fauna and flora in Antarctica". The steps taken in the subsequent years by the delegates in the direction of a coherent policy pas vis-à-vis the protection of the 6th continent, were more than timid. In the beginning, at the meetings in Canberra (1961) and Buenos Aires (1962), measures were proposed, by way of recommendations and voluntary and general codes of conduct - full of verbs in the conditional tense. In 1964, at the meeting in Brussels, cautious recommendations were adopted at the same time as it was decided to create 18 Specially Protected Areas inside which it was forbidden, except subject to restrictive authorisation, to kill, wound, capture or mistreat the local mammals or birds, with the exception of those latitudes possessed by any State by virtue of international law with regard to its activities on the high seas and the fate of whales, which were in the hands of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).
In 1975, "Sites of Special Scientific Interest" were added to these 18 areas.
A detail that demonstrates Antarctica's cumbersome bureaucracy is that the measures decided in 1964, only came into effect 16 years later, in November 1980.
The first document that seriously tried to organise the protection of living species was the Convention adopted in 1972, often known as the "London Convention for the protection of seals in Antarctica ". The articles of the Convention did not totally ban hunting or capture, except for the Ross seals, elephant seals and fur seals; they also set annual hunting quotas -175,000 crab-eater seals, 12,000 leopard seals and 5,000 Weddell seals - hunting periods and locations - in fact, six clearly demarcated zones, alternately banned for one year out of six. A second alarm was sounded shortly after this time, when scientists realised that the industrial fishing of krill was threatening to disrupt the marine ecosystem. Statistics generated by the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) showed that the total krill catch had risen in the space of a few years from 22,000 tons to more than 600,000 tons. Frantic discussions conducted by the countries involved, in conjunction with institutions such as the European Community, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the Inter-Government Oceanographic Commission (IGOC), The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCNN which had published a document dealing with a world-wide conservation strategy) and SCAR, led to the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources or CCAMLR signed in Canberra in 1980.

The wording of the Convention dealt with the management of fishing resources in southern waters and protected living marine species, including birds, from south of the Antarctic convergence (50th parallel), making it mandatory for all member countries to abide by the measures taken in Brussels in 1964 to protect flora and fauna. The Convention created a permanent Commission in Hobart (Tasmania), as well as a scientific committee, and decided to implement a system of control.
For the first time in the history of the Antarctic system, it had become necessary to take the marine environment as an ecosystem in its own right. "it is of value to note," wrote Philippe Gautier, "that in the context of the 1980 convention, control measures have been developed. As a result, any State signing this convention must give notice of any fishing activities carried out by its nationals in the zone covered by the convention. In order to check on compliance of the regulations developed by the Commission set up by the convention, a system of inspections has been planned, to be carried out by inspectors designated by the Commission. Scientific observers have also been placed on board fishing vessels. However, the level of effectiveness of these measures gives cause for some concern in the light of the breaches observed, and at the CCAMLR meeting in 1995, a number of member States argued in favour of the measures being strengthened, for example in the form of the mandatory notification of ship movements and the implementation of a system for checking on the position of ships by satellite. Thus far, however, these projects have not (yet) been successful on account of the resistance of some delegations which are anxious to preserve the exercise of freedom navigating on the high seas."
Although it accomplished a major step forward, the CCAMLR aroused strong criticism: first, from developing countries, which in addition to denouncing for the umpteenth time the hierarchy of the Antarctic system, found it intolerable to envisage restricting krill fishing under the pretext of preserving the ecosystem, while the problems of hunger in the world are so acute. Then from NGOs, dealing with the protection of nature (the World Wild Life Fund, Greenpeace and the Cousteau Foundation), which did not believe that controlled exploitation would be both profitable for trade and without harm for the environment; as far as they were concerned, the slightest modification to the ecosystem could have serious consequences on the Antarctic environment, with the area absolutely having to be considered as a natural park or world reserve.
More generally, opinions were unanimous in stating that notwithstanding the fact that one of the pillars of the Antarctic system was involved here, the CCAMLR was too late in protecting certain species of fish that had been extensively fished in the 1970s (the Antarctic cod or the southern cod, for example) and had almost totally disappeared from southern waters. The convention was also criticised for being incapable of having its articles complied with; with the fishing nations uniting effectively to block any decisions they did not like, as well as arranging to falsify catch figures in such a way that it was impossible to implement a scientific context that could serve as a basis for discussion for setting fishing quotas that were acceptable to everyone. Against this background, making people aware of the problem of safeguarding the environment had of course made its way into the minds of the public, as well as into the world of science.
Here, we should mention the efforts of SCAR, which was the first body to take a positive interest in the risks being run by the Antarctic ecosystem in the face of the development of scientific activity on the continent itself. From 1960 onwards, it suggested that a brochure about the preservation of wild life be distributed to anyone going to Antarctica. SCAR also requested that a maximum amount of information be collected in order to define zones which might be designated as sanctuaries and that the problems of the sub-Antarctic islands be approached.
Eleven years later, a symposium was organised by the National Science Foundation to open discussions into the problems associated with waste and its storage pollution, its impact on the ecosystem, its psychology and any differences that might arise from the practice of science and concerns to protect the natural environment. This meeting gave rise to the publication in the United States in 1978, of the Antarctic Conservation Act ; this document protects Antarctic flora and fauna from any interference and places any scientific activity likely to disturb the environment in any way under the requirement to obtain a special permit issued by the American authorities. In 1988, the committee within SCAR responsible for conservation (Subcommittee on Conservation) was turned into a group of experts specialising in problems relating to the Antarctic environment and conservation (Group of Specialists on Antarctic Environmental Affairs and Conservation or GOSEAC).

These are all separate struggles, some cautious but solid, others more aggressive and spectacular, which, when linked to the push being made by the environment, finally led to the signing of the Madrid Protocol; the fact that Antarctica is a distant continent, arid and hostile to man - and so, in the end, not very profitable in the eyes of the oil company lobbies - no doubt contributed to this agreement being reached.