Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, Introduction.
The discovery of the islands of the Southern Ocean in the 18th century led to the start of exploitation of the area. A number of economic activites have taken place in the region.
Sealing began in the 18th century on & around the island of South Georgia. By 1800, the fur seals of South Georgia were wiped and interest then centred on the South Shetland Islands. Within 3 years over 300,000 seals had been killed and the population had been virtually eradicated. This was expliotation at its worst, with no thought given to future development.
Whaling began in the 19th century. The main targets were blue and right whales; the main products, oil and whalebone (baleen). As the whale population of the North Atlantic became reduced by mass exploitation, the whalers turned thier attention to the Southern Ocean. Whalers sailed from several countries in the Northern Hemisphere, particulary Norway, the USA and the UK.Whaling was highly profitable business and whaling stations were established on South Georgia and the South Sheltlands. In 1904 the Norwegians developed Grytviken on South Georgia, which at its height employed over 300 people. The range of products increased to include meat meal, bonemeal, meat extracts and in the later years frozen whale meat. Grytviken was abandoned in 1965 because whale stocks were becoming seriously depleted and whaling was no longer commercially viable. The establishemnt of the International Whaling Convention in 1946 eventually led to an end of most whaling by 1985. Most but not all, whaling nations agreed to halt the slaughter, as stocks of many species were running dangerously low.
Antarctica and the Southern Ocean Continued...
Fishing has now replaced whaling in the area. In the 1960's, Russian ships began to exploit the Southern Ocean for a number of fish species, including the Antartic rock cod. Concerns have been expressed recently over a number of fish being taken. particularly fishing for krill by Japanese and Russians. Krill underpins the whole of the Southern Ocean food web and scientists do not know how many krill can be taken before the ecosystem is harmed.
The issue of sovereignty was resolved in December 1959 when 12 nations signed upto the Antarctic Treaty. This formalised and guaranteed free access and research rights so that all countries could work together for the common causes of scientific research and exhange of ideas.
The treaty further stated that Antarctica should be used for peaceful purposes only, prohibiting activities of a military nature and subjecting all areas and stations to onsite inspection. The treaty prohibits nuclear explosions and the dumping of nuclear waste. In addition, the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection requires that comprehensive asssesment and monitoring should be carried out to minimise human impacts on the fragile ecosystems of the region. The protocol also bans mineral resorce activity in Antarctica including exploration of the continental shelf. The treaty now has 45 signatories representing around two-thirds of the worlds population.
Antarctic Treaty Tourism
Antarctica is an unusal tourist destination in that it is not populated, except by scientists at a small number of permanent research stations. Polar scientists hace always been concerned about tourism to the continent because they fear it will interfere with their scientific work and destroy the near perfect environment. On the other hand, some committed toursits can be supportive of such scientific work, publicising it and helping to raise funds. Antarctic tourism is of 3 types:
- camping trips for naturalists, photographers and journalists
- ship-board visits, largely by cruise ships but also converted Russian ice breakers. Most start either in Udhuaia - Argentina, which is the nearest port, or in Port Stanley - the Falkland Islands.
- over-flights - these have restarted after an interval of nearly 20 years following the crash of an Air New Zealand DC10 on Mount Erebus, in which all passengers died.
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Tourists go to Antartica to see the glacial landscapes and the wildlife, particulary seals, whales and penguins. They also go for the remoteness and isolation and the chance to test themselves in adverse weather conditions. Toursits may be interested in historic sites, such as the McMurdo Sound with its huts dating from the Scott and Shackletib expeditons. Tourism is concentrated in the short southern summer period, from mid-Novemeber to March.
Ship-borne tourism in Antartica takes the form of 'expeditions'. This concept is reinforced by the issue of polar-style clothing. Most of the ships are comparatively small, with the average capacity of between 50-100 people. Therefore, the ship-based programme of educational lectures by Antartic specialists creates a cohesive abd motivated group. Tourists are carefully briefed on the requirements of the Antarctic Treaty and the environmental protocol. They are informed of the codeof conduct in terms of behaviour ashore, adherence to health and safety regulations and rules about wildlife observation. When visting any one of around 200 possible sites the overall group is divided into boatloads of around 20, each led by an expert guide. Each site may only be visited every 2/3 days.
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Research on the impacts of tourism is being undertaken by the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, particulary at the high-pressure sites of King George Island and Elephant Island, and at all 200 approved landing places. Some findings have already been published and they show that the Antarctic environment has been little affected:
- Antartic tourism is a well run industry, living up to its sound record for environmental concern.
- Guidelines are widely accepted by operators and tourists alike, but they need updating to include the environmental protocol of the UN.
- Damage to vegetation (especially to the fragile moss mat) is due to natural causes, such as breeding seals. Tourists are usually scrupulous in not walking on areas of fragile vegetation.
- No litter is attributed to tourists; they tend to be concerned about the waste they see around the scientific research stations.
- Virtually no stress is caused to penguins by toursits visitng thier breeding colonies. However, tern colonies seem to suffer the disturbance.
- Seals are largely indifferent to the presence of humans. Tourists who follow wildlife guidelines cause no impact.
- Out of 200 landing sites surveyed, ony 5% showed any wear and tear. These need to be rested but at present there is no mechanism to implement this type of management.
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Despite these encouraging signs, there are some concerns:
- The Antarctic ecosystem is extremely fragile - disturbances leave thier imprint for a long time.
- The summer tourist season concides with peak wildlife breeding periods.
- The land based installations and wildlife are clustered in the few ice-free locations on the continent.
- The demand for fresh water is difficult to meet.
- Visitors pressure is felt on cultural heritage sites such as old whaling and sealing stations and early exploration bases.
- There is some evidence that flying over by light planes and helicopters is causing some stress to breeding colonies of penguins and other birds.
- The unique legal status of Antarctica makes enforcement of any code of behaviour difficult.