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.