Bioprospecting, Antarctic tourism also on the agenda for conservation groups working in the region
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Antarctica is the only continent where there hasn’t (yet) been a war or outright conflict over natural resources and territory, and a group of international scientists collaborating within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty aims to keep it that way.
The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research recently endorsed a plan to create a network of marine reserves in the Southern Ocean (encompassing the circumpolar region south of 60 degrees latitude), including the Ross Sea. The goal is to establish the protected areas by 2012.
The Ross Sea region was singled out for its importance in terms of biodiversity and as a reference area for studying climate change. The Ross Sea is an ecological refuge for many Southern Ocean species.
“We welcome these important steps,” said Tina Tin, a climate campaign organizer with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. “Climate research in Antarctica provides crucial information for the international community … The governments have started to take significant steps to lower the carbon footprint of their Antarctic research stations and logistics, but there is much more that can be done,” she said.
Climate change research and impacts to Antarctica will be a major topic on the agenda at the full meeting of the Antarctic Treaty nations next year.
Meeting in Uruguay last month, the scientific committee also discussed Antarctic tourism. Rapid growth over the past decade has included increased visitation by large vessels carrying up to 3000 passengers. The cruise ships are not designed to sail in Antarctic seas, and conservation groups are concerned that an accident will result in significant environmental damage, not to mention the potential for loss of life.
One key area that was overlooked in the Uruguay discussions was the issue of bioprospecting in the Antarctic region. As technology improves, more research is being done to explore potential economic uses of organisms found in the area. For example, a small sea snail found in the South Pacific produces a venom that can be used to produce a pain-killer 1,000 times more powerful than morphine.
Advocates with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition say unregulated bioprospecting in the region is picking up steam, and that there needs to be a legal framework for ensuring international oversight and cooperation on that form of scientific research. Listen to an NPR report on the subject here.
“The governments are not complying with a 2005 resolution requiring parties to share all information about their own bioprospecting and patenting of Antarctic life forms,” said Jim Barnes, the committee’s executive director. “It is shocking that they couldn’t even agree to continue intercessional work to prepare a regulatory framework for this rapidly emerging industry.”
Activists also called on the international community to address the polar shipping code to set higher standards for all vessels operating in the Arctic and Antarctic.
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