Many species unique to the Southern Ocean have been, or continue to be, commercially fished in the waters around Antarctica. Historically, Antarctic whales were harvested for baleen and blubber oil, and fur seals were killed for their pelts. Today, the primary species targeted by Antarctic fisheries are Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), a keystone species in Antarctic ecosystems, and both Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides and Dissostichus mawsoni).
As the warming climate puts additional pressure on marine life, we must do more to safeguard vulnerable Antarctic ecosystems.
Ghost fishing gear
Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG), otherwise known as ‘Ghost Gear’, is a significant threat posed by fisheries in the Southern Ocean. These silent killers include fishing nets, lines and hooks, and fish traps, which continue to “fish”, and which wildlife can become entangled in, often leading to a slow, painful death.
In the Southern Ocean, nearly 850 miles (1363 kilometers) of long line was abandoned, lost or discarded in only two fishing seasons. Fishing line takes around 600 years to break down. When it finally does, it disintegrates into harmful microplastics, which can be ingested by fish and crustaceans, and eventually humans.
ASOC advocates for mandatory regulations that require fishing vessels to mark or label their fishing gear, and require fishing crews to report losses of fishing gear along with any encounters with ghost fishing gear.
Photo credit: NOAA
Plastic pollution is a byproduct of fisheries – and all shipping.
In addition to lost or deliberately abandoned plastic ropes, lines and nets, there are numerous other sources of marine plastics. These include garbage like straws and food wrappers, gray water, which often contains microplastics, and protective coatings and paints.
According to the United Nations, by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean.
The west Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet, and home to more than half of the Antarctic krill population (up to 70 percent).
The west Antarctic Peninsula is changing rapidly. In addition to increased attention from fisheries, summer sea surface temperatures in this region have increased by over 1.8°F (1°C) since 1955, and winter sea ice duration dropped by almost 100 days between 1978 and 2014.
Antarctic ecosystems in this area are already showing signs of stress as ocean temperatures warm, surface winds intensify and human activity increases around the continent.
Since the 1950s several Adélie penguin colonies in the region have vanished, while many others have shrunk. These changes appear to be linked to reduced availability of Antarctic krill, a primary food source for Adélie penguins.
Exactly how all of these changes are related is an area of current research. More data is needed to understand the complex changes taking place, and ensure that human activity will not adversely affect krill, the predators that depend on them, or the broader ecosystem.
Now is the time to introduce science-based policies to ensure resilient ecosystems into the future.
Who regulates Antarctic fisheries?
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is an international body responsible for the conservation of living marine resources (excluding mammals) in the Southern Ocean. As an instrument within the Antarctic Treaty System, it takes a precautionary, ecosystem-based approach to the management of Antarctic fisheries.
CCAMLR is made up of 25 Member countries and the European Union, which meet each year to make decisions on issues such as the closure and opening of fisheries in Antarctica, total allowable catches (TACs), and the designation of marine protected areas (MPAs).
Other regulatory bodies
While CCAMLR is responsible for conserving and managing the entire Southern Ocean ecosystem, there are several other international conventions and organizations that play a role in regulating Antarctic fisheries.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) responsible for the safety, security and environmental performance of worldwide shipping, including shipping related to fisheries. Learn more about the IMO.
Other elements of the Antarctic governance regime, such as Annex IV (Marine Pollution) of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, also contribute to the regulatory framework for Southern Ocean fisheries. Learn more about Antarctic governance.
What ASOC is doing
ASOC advocates for science-based policies that promote vibrant, resilient Antarctic ecosystems into the future. We actively support strong, enforceable regulation of Antarctic fisheries at the highest level of Antarctic governance.
ASOC strongly supports the establishment of a representative network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) across the Southern Ocean.
Designated MPAs are the most effective way to protect ocean ecosystems.
They protect biodiversity, while mitigating the impacts of a changing climate and providing reference areas for scientific research.
Protecting large areas from fishing and pollution will provide refuges for vulnerable species whose habitat may be changing dramatically.
ASOC monitors all issues that impact the Antarctic including fisheries management, biological prospecting and pirate fishing.
As the only official environmental NGO observer at CCAMLR meetings, we present science-based policy proposals and provide Treaty parties with reliable information on how to protect the Antarctic environment. We also advocate for strict port state measures to reduce IUU fishing.
ASOC advocates for strengthening liability and accountability for states and operators who cause damage to the Antarctic environment, threatening its land, waters, and species.
The question of who is liable for environmental damage in Antarctica is critical to its protection. An environmental emergency in Antarctica would be disastrous and costly to remedy, with grave consequences for fragile ecosystems in areas that are extremely difficult to access.
Despite decades of negotiation, the question of who is liable for damage caused in the Antarctic Treaty Area remains unanswered. If there was a major environmental incident in Antarctic waters, there are several unknowns: who is responsible for coordinating the cleanup response? Who pays for the repair work? Who ensures that it’s done, and done well? How is this enforced? And what happens if the responsible parties refuse to do the work? Without answers to these questions, an environmental crisis could turn into a global disaster. As the Exxon Valdez oil spill showed us in the 1980s, environmental emergencies in remote areas are costly, time-consuming and resource-intensive to remediate. Establishing liability for environmental damage in Antarctica is essential, both to promote accountability among those operating in
Antarctica, and to discourage high-risk activities.
ASOC continues to advocate for the adoption of preventative regulations that both deter parties and operators from taking risks that could cause environmental damage, and establish liability in advance of an incident.
ASOC supports the full and effective implementation of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty.
Antarctica’s Environmental Protocol provides a legally binding set of conservation measures that covers most activities in the Antarctic Treaty area. However, although it entered into force in 1998, some important provisions of the Protocol still haven’t been put in place. For example, we are still waiting for a system of protected areas to be created, and a liability regime to be established.
ASOC campaigns for full and effective implementation of the Environmental Protocol so Antarctica will be governed to the highest standard of environmental protection possible.