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Social and economic background
The Antarctic region was first penetrated by European explorers in the 18th century. Cook's circumnavigation in 1772-75, and the resulting awareness of the large populations of whales and seals there, ushered in the first era of marine mammal exploitation in the Antarctic waters. Fur seals were massively overexploited, and eliminated from some islands by the 1820s. Sealers and whalers became major explorers of the Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic in the 19th century while searching for new hunting grounds. National expeditions began to be sent to Antarctica in the middle of the 19th century. The first deliberate overwintering was in 1898 and the South Pole was reached by Amundsen in 1911, although the mapping of Antarctica was only completed in the late 1940s. Permanent human presence in Antarctica dates mainly from the establishment of year-round research stations in the 1940s - although the Argentine station 'Orcadas' has been continuously operated since 1904. In 1997 some 35 stations on the continent and islands south of 60° South, and a further 7 on sub-Antarctic islands operated year-round (SCAR 1998).
Seven states assert sovereignty claims to Antarctic sectors (three of these overlap and are mutually contested), both the United States and the Russian Federation have reserved the right to make claims, and most other states do not recognize any claims. The Antarctic Treaty seeks to 'freeze' the various positions on sovereignty, demilitarize the area, guarantee freedom of access and emphasize science as the primary currency of national activity in Antarctica. Subsequent agreements in what has been termed the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) include the 1972 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS), the 1980 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), and the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. All three are in force. Parties to the Antarctic Treaty (increased from the 12 original signatories in 1959 to 44 by 1999) assert that the ATS is an effective and open system for the governance of Antarctica in the interest of the international community. The legitimacy of the ATS has been challenged by some states within the forum of the UN General Assembly, and the effectiveness of the system in relation to environmental protection has periodically been challenged by NGOs.
Scientific investigation has been the predominant human activity since the 1950s. Localized impacts from station operations are generally well recognized and seem unlikely to worsen. Operators are now legally required to conduct environmental impact assessments for all activities and to develop waste management plans.
Tourism is developing rapidly. Ship-borne tourists increased from 4 698 in the 1990/91 season (Enzenbacher 1992) to an anticipated 13 900 in 1999/2000 (IAATO 1999a). Although most tourists arrive in Antarctica by ship, a few travel by air and yacht. Most tourism cruises (96 of the 102 in 1998/99) are in the Antarctic Peninsula area, with the remainder generally in the Ross Sea region (IAATO 1999a). The sub-Antarctic islands are also visited on many Antarctic voyages (Cessford and Dingwall 1998).
Although the length of tourists' stays is much shorter than for personnel of national Antarctic programmes, tourists can cause adverse environmental impacts, particularly on the Antarctic Peninsula. Measures to assess, mitigate and prevent these impacts, as well as to repond to emergencies, are taken by industry (IAATO 1999b), by the Antarctic Treaty System (AT 1994) and by individual states (Prebble and Dingwall 1997). For the Antarctic Peninsula a guide to regular tourist sites has been produced which identifies environmental sensitivities (Naveen 1997).
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty specifically prohibits mineral resource activity other than for scientific purposes. The only extractive resource industry in the Antarctic is fishing within the CCAMLR area, south of the Polar Front. The 1997/98 fisheries in the Convention area are Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides and D. mawsoni), mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari), krill (Euphausia superba) and squid (Martialia hyadesi). Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in the Convention area is a matter of major concern and poses a serious challenge to the Antarctic Treaty system (CCAMLR 1999).
Previous: The Antarctic