Environment: Some countries only paying lip service to Antarctica conservation

Legal analysis finds some countries are abusing an international conservation treaty to justify more Southern Ocean fishing

Increasing concentrations of CO2 could turn this Antarctic beach into a tropical zone. Photo by Bob Berwyn.
Will the world be able to agree on new protection for the Southern Ocean? @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

Efforts to set aside protected ocean areas around Antarctica are faltering because some countries are willfully misinterpreting a legal treaty governing the use of resources in the region, according to a new analysis published in the journal Marine Policy.

At issue is the term “rational use” in an international treaty that governs the management of natural resources in the region. Even though the treaty is focused on conservation, some countries are twisting the term to justify unsustainable fishing, said the scientists and legal scholars who published their findings to coincide with a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources in Hobart, Tasmania.

The international organization is setting fisheries management rules for the Southern Ocean around Antarctica and also wants to take up the issue of creating vast new marine reserves — but those efforts have been blocked in recent years by Russia and China, who want the freedom to exploit resources unsustainably.

The treaty requires that fishing does not cause irreversible damage to the greater marine ecosystem. While defined in the text of the legal Convention, the term rational use is increasingly being interpreted to mean an unfettered right to fish. Even more surprising, countries such as China and Ukraine have recently invoked rational use to protest the adoption of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean.

“Our research into the treaty negotiation record shows that ‘rational use’ on its own did not have a clear, consistent, or objective meaning,” said lead author Jennifer Jacquet, an assistant professor in New York University’s Environmental Studies Program.

“In recent years, some countries have argued that MPAs interfere with their right to rational use,” Brooks said. “Yet adopting MPAs in CCAMLR waters is in complete accordance with stipulations of rational use, which require conservation of the fished species and the greater ecosystem in the Southern Ocean.”

Currently, the main species harvested in the Antarctic are Antarctic krill and Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish, also known on the market as the lucrative “Chilean sea bass.”

“The Southern Ocean is a global commons. As such, marine protected areas would allow CCAMLR member states to continue fishing while also ensuring a legacy for future generations,” Brooks said. “What could be more rational than that?”

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