United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
Global Environment Outlook-1 - The Web version

Chapter 2: Regional Perspectives

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Polar Regions

The Antarctic

Human Activities

[ Science and Support Activities | Tourism | Exploitation of Marine Living Resources ]

Science and Support Activities

Scientific investigation is the predominant human activity in this region that offers outstanding opportunities for fundamental research essential to understanding the global environment. Since regular scientific and support activities began, the number of people visiting the Antarctic has increased steadily through to 1989-90 (Beltramino, 1993). Exact data on person-days spent in the region are unavailable due to the way in which data are reported but, for obvious reasons, most activity occurs during the summer months. The United States has the largest Antarctic science programme. The size and nature of the scientific presence in Antarctica, coupled with more relaxed rules and practices of environmental management in the past, have resulted in localized impacts on the Antarctic environment. The effects of past activities, such as open burning and dumping of trash close to stations, may still be seen today, although the Madrid Protocol (see Chapter 3) now bans these practices and calls for the cleanup of old dump sites. Aircraft, vehicular and boat traffic, travel by foot, and camp and station construction all inevitably still have some impacts, even under the more stringent rules of the Madrid Protocol.


Antarctica has been a limited tourist destination for the past 40 years; around 60,000 tourists are estimated to have visited during that time (adapted from Enzenbacher, 1993). In addition to those arriving by sea and air, a number of tourists see Antarctica only by air, without landing.

However, commercial tourism has undergone a period of accelerated growth in the past 10 years. The number of tourists visiting Antarctica in 1995-96 was the highest ever recorded. There have also been associated increases in the number of vessels used to carry tourists and in the number of sites they visit. At least 12 ships are now in use for tourism each season (United Kingdom, 1995), and landing sites have increased from 36 to more than 150 since the early 1990s (NSF, 1995; Ucha and Barrio, 1996).

The types of activities available to tourists have broadened to include skiing, climbing, camping, and sea kayaking. Although numbers are low, there is growing awareness of the importance of environmental issues arising from tourism (Enzenbacher, 1994). In response to the increase in tourism, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators was founded in August 1991. Antarctic Treaty Recommendation XVIII-1 (see Chapter 3) provides operational and environmental guidelines to tour operators in Antarctica.

Exploitation of Marine Living Resources

Exploitation of living marine resources in the Antarctic is focused on krill (E. superba) and Antarctic finfish species. Predominant target species are the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides), mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari), and lanternfish (Electrona carlsbergi). The finfish fisheries have been active since 1969-70, with more than 3 million metric tons caught prior to 1995-96, though finfish catches have been very low since 1992. Krill harvesting began in 1972-73, and the current catch, which is the largest in Antarctic waters, is around 90,000 metric tons a year (Kock, 1994). (See Table 2.15.) Some new fisheries are being initiated and investigated, such as harvesting of stone crabs (Lithodidae) and squid (Martialia hyadesi), which may have potential for commercial exploitation (New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1995; CCAMLR, 1996). Krill catches have declined since the early 1990s. However, this is primarily due to a reduction in the Russian and Ukrainian fishing activities rather than to a decline in the krill population (CCAMLR, 1993).

Total allowable catch limits have been set for targeted species under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). Current fishing levels are well below these limits, with the possible exception of the Patagonian toothfish, for which illegal fishing is believed to equal or exceed the allowable catch limit (ASOC, 1996). Many fisheries, including krill, are still considered to be in the exploratory stage of exploitation. Thus it is important to have accurate knowledge of the biology and ecology of the entire marine ecosystem to allow for informed management decisions leading to a sustainable fishery.

Most finfishing in the Southern Ocean has been conducted with bottom trawls-funnel-shaped nets towed behind a vessel (Kock, 1994). Trawl gear is reported to affect the environment by scraping and ploughing the seabed, resuspending sediments, and generally disturbing the benthos (seabed environment) (Jones, in Kock, 1994). Exact effects on the rich benthic flora and fauna of the Southern Ocean are largely unknown. It is speculated, however, that trawling could have serious, long-lasting impacts on the slow-growing, low-resilience benthic assemblages, with consequent effects on food chains and sustainable fisheries.

Incidental mortality of seabirds during longline fishing operations has been reported as a significant problem (Ashford and Croxall, 1994 and 1995). Mitigation measures, such as setting of longlines only at night, have now been adopted under the CCAMLR.

A 1982 decision of the IWC imposed a moratorium on whaling (except for indigenous subsistence and scientific purposes) from the 1985-86 season. The moratorium ended in 1994, the same year in which a Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary was established by the IWC. There is presently no known commercial hunting of seals in Antarctica.

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