Image credit: UPenn

Forum on the Future of Antarctica


Thanks to the many successful and robust international cooperation initiatives in Antarctica, the Frozen Continent doesn’t often make news that focuses so often on international conflicts.  But the growing attention of the importance of Antarctica to climate change and to global science and environment issues prompted a dozen experts from several countries and differing areas of expertise to discuss new challenges in a week-long seminar aboard an Antarctic cruise liner, the  Akademik Ioffe, in 2016.  I was fortunate to join them.

The Forum, held from February 28 to March 9 while sailing in the Antarctic Peninsula region, provided a unique opportunity to review the current efforts and successes of the organizations presently collaborating on the protection and conservation of this unique environment:  the Antarctic Treaty, its Protocol on Environmental Protection, and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which are informally known as the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Environmentalists and representatives from the tourist and fishing industries were able to come together to discuss the future management of human activities in Antarctica. By the end of the week at sea, we had identified several concerns and made multiple recommendations for future action. We also agreed to formalize continuing discussions under the banner of the Future of Antarctica Forum.

The Forum, which involved the participation of individuals from a range of Antarctic stakeholder groups, noted that the Antarctic Treaty System needs to continue to evolve during  the 21st century. Increasing and enhancing the use of the scientific data and information available to assist decision-making and ongoing, improved cooperation and coordination among all stakeholders will be essential to ensuring that Antarctica remains a continent of peace, science, and conservation. It is increasingly important for Antarctic science, management, and diplomacy to focus on the problems of climate change, overutilization of marine resources, and the increasing stress of the growing number of tourists to the continent, especially on the Antarctic Peninsula. The participants agreed that future policy decisions would be significantly aided by an interdisciplinary, international effort that seeks to “distinguish the direct and interactive effects of climate change, fishing, tourism, and national operations on ecosystems in the Antarctic Peninsula region for improved environmental management.” Specifically, participants suggested that Oceanites, the nongovernmental organization that convened the trip, pursue development of a project along these lines, working with relevant stakeholders in the collaborative spirit of the Antarctic Treaty System.

The group met daily during the ten-day trip, under Chatham House Rules – that is, no attribution by name or affiliation, which generally promotes a freer range of discussion. Indeed, this freedom allowed a healthy exchange of views on the successes and problems facing the ATS. For example:

  • What can be done to raise Antarctica in the ‘global forum’ of discussions on current topics such as climate change?
  • Is ATS decision-making supported adequately by the science?
  • Are fishing interests properly managed?
  • Is tourism managed as well as possible?

The participants concluded that the broad principles expressed in the landmark international agreements governing Antarctica, ATS, had been successful in the governance and environmental protection of the Antarctic to date, but that new and emerging challenges required changes.

The Antarctic Treaty has grown from the 12 original signatories in 1959 to 53 today, comprising over two-thirds of the world’s population. Of its members, 30 maintain active research programs, and are referred to as Consultative Parties, or voting members.  CCAMLR has grown from 14 signatories in 1959 to 36 today, of which 24 (and the European Union) are Commission members.  The Consultative Parties and Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) members focus on increasing and enhancing the use of the scientific data and information available to assist decision-making, and improved cooperation and coordination among all stakeholders. Such engagement will be essential to ensuring that Antarctica retains its status as the continent of peace, science, and conservation.

The key roles of Antarctic science, management, and diplomacy in addressing climate change emerged as a central theme of the discussions. In the context of broader overall changes across the Antarctic and Southern Oceans, the notable warming trend in the western Antarctic Peninsula, and its implications for the global ecosystem, was identified as a major concern. The average temperatures on the Peninsula have risen about 5 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 50 years, clearly indicating a warming trend. Ensuring that human activities in this region are managed in a way that does not exacerbate climatic stresses on the ecosystem is crucial.  Participants agreed that future policy decisions in this regard would be significantly aided by an interdisciplinary, international effort to seek to:

“Distinguish the direct and interactive effects of climate change, fishing, tourism, and national operations on ecosystems in the Antarctic Peninsula region for improved environmental management.”

The Forum participants noted the relevance and success of OceanitesAntarctic Site Inventory project, which, over the past two decades, has made over 1,700 site visits and collected data at more than 200 Antarctic Peninsula locations, to observe change or stability at these same sites, thus delivering sustained scientific monitoring across the Antarctic Peninsula. The ATS has adopted Site Guidelines for Visitors at 40 of these sites – generally the most visited ones – which has encouraged global cooperation in observing environmental changes at these specific locations.

Forum participants encouraged all Parties to the Treaty and nongovernmental organizations, like Oceanites, which has played a key role in the Inventory, to continue working together in the collaborative spirit of the Antarctic Treaty System. These collaborations help maintain baseline data in parts of Antarctica, the importance of which cannot be overemphasized.  

On the subject of tourism, Forum participants noted that tourist landings from cruise ships had increased from 7,000 in the early 1990s to over 35,000 in 2014. There was general agreement that the on-shore landings had been generally well monitored, and that no significant impacts have raised concerns at this time. Still, the presence of such growing numbers, generally concentrated in a limited number of areas with good access, needs to be carefully watched and monitored. 

With regard to fishing efforts, several participants expressed concern that CCAMLR needed to be vigilant regarding increased stresses on marine resources. CCAMLR was negotiated in the late 1970s to address the unregulated fisheries in the Southern Ocean, which had resulted in the decimation of several species of Antarctic fish. While there was broad agreement that the Treaty has been successful in controlling overfishing, Forum participants urged countries to continue to focus on Article 2 (3) of CCAMLR. Specifically, that means adhering to this principle of conservation: “prevention of changes or minimisation of the risk of changes in the marine ecosystem which are not potentially reversible over two or three decades.”

The consideration of ecosystem management in determining harvest levels, as opposed to sustainable yield, or maximum utilization, was unique to international law at the time of CCAMLR’s negotiation and remains a model for fisheries and ocean conservation and management. Fishing in the Southern Ocean waters grew rapidly in the 1980s, reaching a peak of over 500,000 metric tons (MT) of krill (Euphausia superba) in 1982. Once CCAMLR entered into force, overfishing was controlled. Current catch levels of krill are more in the range of 200,000 MT.  Catches of toothfish (Dissosthicus eligoinides), also known as Chilean Seabass, a prized deep sea fish, had peaked at levels over 15,000 MT in 1999, but are now consistently below 12,000 MT.

Predicted catch levels of the start of fishing seasons are consistently much higher than actual catches, indicating a large capacity to expand, should harvesting techniques and market interest permit, which demonstrates the need for continued vigilance. Some participants in the seminar expressed concern at the growth of the new entrants to the Antarctic fisheries, such as China, and urged CCAMLR members to continue to observe its conservationist principles. As noted, CCAMLR was the first international agreement to recognize the concept of “ecosystem management,” and it remains an example of the need to focus on the entire ecosystem, rather than simple fisheries management and maximization of catches. In addition, the difficulty of inadequate monitoring and enforcement in these distant waters remains a problem.

Forum participants suggested that the outcomes of such work would further provide Antarctic Treaty Parties with the best possible scientific data and information to inform evidence-based decision-making. Moreover, public communication of the outcomes would help improve global understanding of the role of Antarctica in the climate system, of the impacts the region is already experiencing, and the work being done through the Antarctic Treaty System to mitigate these impacts. There was broad agreement that CCAMLR was continuing to provide the appropriate forum for managing the marine resources of the Southern Ocean.

Next Steps

Oceanites accepted the challenge of continuing to host future meetings of the Future of Antarctica Forum and of establishing an international interdisciplinary effort to bring together available scientific, tourism, and fisheries data for the Antarctic Peninsula region, in an attempt to distinguish the direct and interactive effects of climate change and other human activities on the ecosystem.  Forum participants agreed to support Oceanites in this work, as appropriate. They also expressed their hope that other Treaty parties would also agree that such a project would be useful, and to share any requested data as far as possible.

The Forum represents yet another successful meeting of minds, organizations, and governments in an attempt to protect the frozen continent and responsibly leverage its vast resources and potential.

Relationship Building Transboundary Issues and Shared Spaces March 2017