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Is it time to kill the Antarctic Treaty?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Fifty years ago, 12 nations—Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union and the U.S.—agreed to cede their claims to Antarctica. The continent would belong to no nation and become a nature preserve and scientific laboratory open to all.

The signing was a remarkable achievement considering that it happened amid the Cold War and other international hostilities. The idealistic vision of a universal continent, though, has backfired environmentally, points out Scientific American contributor Brendan Borrell in his New York Times op-ed piece earlier this week. He had previously pointed out the treaty’s affect on marine ecosystems in his Scientific American story posted in November 2008.

The treaty, it seems, can be seen as the epitome of the "tragedy of the commons," in which a resource open to all is ravaged to the detriment of all because no one takes responsibility for it. In a personal example, Borrell mentions that, when he visited Antarctica with a science team in 2001, he dined on toothfish freshly caught from the Ross Sea. (The fish is typically served in restaurants as Chilean sea bass.) In the past six years, though, no toothfish has been caught there, because of pirate fishing boats.

The fault of this and other Antarctic fishery failures, he argues, falls squarely on the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, established in 1982 and tasked with regulating the fisheries governed by the Antarctic Treaty. Environmental timidity "on the ocean pretty much sums up the 50-year history of the Antarctic Treaty. Year after year, the marine conservation commission defeats or defangs nearly every progressive proposal put before it," Borrell writes in the NYT.

Instead, a strategy that might horrify conservationists and advocates of international agreements would better serve the South Pole—namely, ditching the Antarctic Treaty and allowing nations to stake claims. He notes the Arctic case of Spitsbergen, which in 1912 was deemed by international convention to belong to no nation. But the convention soon died, and in 1920 Spitsbergen effectively became a part of Norway, which vigorously protects the island’s environment.


Satellite image of Antarctica from Wikimedia Commons.


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  1. 1. Michael Hanlon 8:39 pm 12/2/2009

    Or, another tactic would be to create a force of United Nations Park Rangers and outfit them with all the tools necessary to enforce laws andprotect this fragile environment.

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  2. 2. lyodeli 10:04 pm 12/2/2009

    My main question is seriously wanting to know how Borrell got to eat fish from the Antarctic waters?? I have spent three years on the Ice and even just swatting a skua trying to steal our food is considered a serious violation of the Treaty; we could technically be fired and banned from the Ice for doing that (though it is pretty well understood that those birds will do anything for your food – just don’t run it over with a truck). So, if we can’t aggravate a bird, how the heck did he get to EAT a fish?

    I also disagree with the writer and believe the Treaty is a good start to something. The underwater shores of McMurdo Station are cluttered with vehicle garbage and chemical waste; before the Treaty, this was considered okay. While this may seem obviously bad in a common sense form, it is a good attempt at holding countries accountable for their actions.

    Politically, there is hush hush talk about resources underneath the ice. If there is no Treaty to begin with, countries (such as Russia and the US) will bicker and fight over dibs. At least with a Treaty such land grabs will not be easy to obtain.

    One final benefit to a Treaty are situations like the drilling at Vostok which had to be halted so a discussion about hazards/benefits to drilling further could be made among a group of countries. I think a group consensus in that scenario was far more appropriate than a country just going ahead alone. There were far too many risks involved.

    Okay. I’m done.

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  3. 3. Some Random Guy 2:38 am 12/3/2009

    I think if you look deeper into this issue, this amounts to nothing more that "putting the feelers out" re: public opinion.

    It will be just an excuse for the "powers that be", or "will be", to open up the Antarctic to resource exploitation.

    There is nothing sacred so long as what lies underneath can be exploited for profit.

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  4. 4. JamesDavis 6:55 am 12/3/2009

    Since Norway seem to be the smarter of the bunch, let them have it and supply them the means to vigerousle protect it. If any other nation get their hands on it, they will destroy everything in sight to get to the rich oil supply and other rich natural resources…greed will stop at nothing to get what they want.

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  5. 5. Steve D 3:54 pm 12/3/2009

    I visited Antarctica in 1975 when flagrant abuse of wildlife was frowned upon but you could go up to seals and penguins and nobody thought anything of it. I am glad I got to see Antarctica before the anal-retentives took it over. As for the pirate boats, sink them. And yes, the preservation of the Antarctic IS more important than the lives of poachers.

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  6. 6. Fuhe 7:53 pm 12/3/2009

    I think your suggestion is a pretty good alternative choice, althought some skeptics don’t think highly of the role of UN workers.

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  7. 7. Fuhe 8:08 pm 12/3/2009

    Good alternative option. But one question: how to make sure that the UN regulations are effective?

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  8. 8. Michael Hanlon 11:46 pm 12/5/2009

    Sorry, I’m just a "head-in-the-clouds" idea man. I don’t do implementings

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  9. 9. yelobirdy 9:47 am 12/11/2009

    Don’t ditch the treaty – if nations are allowed to stake claims it would accelerate the destruction of the natural environment. If/when oil is discovered there do we really want any country with a military to be able to claim parts of the continental shelf?

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