A decade of Antarctic protection

Why penguins don't wake up oily

Feature story - January 14, 2008
On this date in 1998, more than ten years of Greenpeace efforts delivered a champagne moment, when an extraordinary international agreement came into force, protecting the Antarctic continent from oil and minerals exploitation for the next five decades. Today, we take a moment to honour the efforts that are still keeping an entire continent safe from the catastrophe of oil spills, even as we redouble our efforts to protect its oceans from further threats.

Penguins in Antarctica.

Antarctica is quite simply unlike anywhere else on Earth, a near pristine environment of ice and snow.  That it remains a true wilderness is the result of the efforts of a great many people over many years, a large proportion of whom have never, or will never, set foot on the continent but hold dear the belief that this essentially unspoiled region should not be lost.

Greenpeace's own history is closely tied to the history of protection of Antarctica.  It is now 20 years since four Greenpeace volunteers became the first occupants of a small permanent base on the shore of Ross Island. This was for the next four years to be at the centre of Greenpeace's campaign, begun in earnest in 1985, to establish the region as a World Park - an idea founded on the principle that the continent is part of the global commons, belonging to nobody.  The objective of the campaign was to stop the various countries that were staking a claim to the oil and mineral deposits under the ice and rock.

Treaty talks

Having a presence on the continent gave Greenpeace a voice at the Antarctica Treaty table where the continent's fate would ultimately be decided. The Antarctica Treaty was signed in 1958 by eighteen countries, seven of which claimed a territorial stake in the region. The treaty recognised Antarctica as a unique scientific and planetary resource for the whole of humankind and protected it for 30 years.  However by the early 1980s,  knowledge of the extent of Antarctica's mineral wealth was increasing, along with technological advances that would enable its exploitation.  To environmentalists, it looked as if the signatories to the Antarctic Treaty were all but lining up to start prospecting, and the prospects of actually stopping them appeared slim.

The campaign had many strands, with the on-the-ice work helping drive the political lobby work.  Greenpeace's monitoring of the environmental impacts of the various activities being carried out by the countries which had bases in the region and the blocking of the construction of a French airstrip, which involved the dynamiting of a penguin nesting area and was in direct contravention of the Treaty, helped garner support for the campaign.  This came from governments, other NGOs and from global personalities including Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Jacques Cousteau, and Ted Turner.

Annoyance to acceptance

In the seven years of the campaign Greenpeace went from being perceived as almost a despised outsider in the affairs of the Antarctica Treaty Nations to a respected player in negotiations for the future of the continent. In 1989 the "Exxon Valdez" oil spill in Alaska severely undermined the oil companies' argument that drilling in ecologically sensitive areas could be conducted in a safe, environmentally friendly manner.  Gradually more and more of the Treaty signatories were persuaded of the merits of making Antarctica a World Park.

In 1991 the members of the Antarctic Treaty agreed to adopt a new Environmental Protocol, known as the Madrid Protocol, including an extraordinary 50-year minimum prohibition on all mineral exploitation.

A milestone in the history of both the environment and Greenpeace, it does not mean that the region is safe from human interference - in particular Antarctica's unique marine ecosystems are coming under increasing threat -- and not only from the Japanese whaling fleet.

Arrrrr, toothfish, mateys

Pirate fishing for toothfish is an ongoing problem, depleting fish stock after fish stock and causing major damage to albatross and other seabird species which swoop down to feed on the bait as the longlines are set, get hooked and drown.  Last year the estimated bycatch of seabirds by the pirate fishing fleet was 8,212 birds.  After destroying the fish stock in one area these vessels move on to another.  Currently pirate fishing is concentrated around the BANZARE Bank area and the damage they are doing is likely only to be reversible in decades.  As the pirate fleet creeps round the continent it is getting ever closer to the Ross Sea, an area considered one of the most pristine on earth and one that has long been advocated as warranting complete protection.

Accidental tourists

Even non-extractive activities can put enormous pressures on the fragile Antarctic ecology.  Drawn both by the splendours of the ice and by the extraordinary marine wildlife of the region - seabirds, penguins, seals and whales, the numbers of tourists visiting Antarctica are increasing year on year.  The sinking of the cruise vessel MV Explorer off King George Island, South Shetland Islands, in November serves as a timely reminder of the risks that even this activity poses to the marine environment.  Many vessels are much larger and carry large quantities of oil and it is entirely possible that an accident of this kind could at some future date lead to an environmental catastrophe and clearly shows why this industry needs careful regulation.

License to krill?

Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) are among the most abundant and successful animal species on the planet and are a keystone species in the Antarctic food web with most of the larger Antarctic animals, the seals, whales and seabirds as well as the less well known fish and squid, depend directly or indirectly on them for food.  There is much to marvel at regarding krill biology and much still to learn, especially the relative importance of their role in carbon sequestration. It has been known for some time that Antarctic krill feed on phytoplankton near the surface at night and sink deeper in the water column during the day to avoid predators, but recent research by some British scientists has revealed that they also parachute down several times during the night.  As a consequence of this behaviour, the krill is likely to be transporting more carbon from the surface layers to deeper waters than previously thought.  Lead author of the paper, Dr Geraint Tarling from the British Antarctic Survey estimates the annual sequestration of carbon by Antarctic krill may be the equivalent to the emissions of 35 million cars.  The growing interest in harvesting of massive quantities of krill in the Southern Ocean could therefore have major consequences not only for marine predators but also for the climate.

Less ice, more oil

As oil prices rise and the world's fossil fuel addiction continues, both the Arctic and the Antarctic seabeds are being sized up for new territorial claims under the Law of the Sea Convention.  Last year, Russia placed a flag on the ocean floor under the Arctic, putting down the first marker in what could be a very messy undersea land-grab -- and a disastrous one for the climate.

Some of the most drastic effects of climate change are currently being experienced in the polar regions with ice-shelves melting and glaciers shrinking in both the Arctic and Antarctica.  This week the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, and Rajenda Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC will be visiting Antarctica to draw attention to the scale of problem.  Rapid melting at both poles will not just affect the simple but vulnerable polar ecosystems but affect the global climate and could lead to devastating sea-level rise.

Marine reserves for healthy oceans

As the world changes and even greater pressures are placed on Antarctica, more must be done to ensure it is properly protected.  Globally we should all be working to reduce the emissions of fossil fuels and also supporting measures that will increase the resilience of our ocean ecosystems to the impacts of climate change.  Greenpeace is campaigning for a global network of marine reserves that would do just that -- put large ocean areas off limits to fishing and other extractive activities such as oil drilling.  In our Roadmap to Recovery we identified three huge areas around Antarctica which should be included in any future network.  However as principal author, Professor Callum Roberts, writes there is a case for extending such protection to all waters south of 60 degrees South to safeguard one of the most pristine environments left on the planet for the benefit of all humanity.   

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