Our Burning Planet


Fishing ‘moratorium’ could help save climate-stressed Antarctic species, say A-list scientists

Fishing ‘moratorium’ could help save climate-stressed Antarctic species, say A-list scientists
Antarctic krill. (Photo: Wikimedia)

The tongue-twisting Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is marking its 40th anniversary year in Tasmania. But an influential group of polar scientists — including South African researchers — has called out the fish products and research body for pursuing exclusive, unsustainable fishing practices in a wilderness on the edge.

Plunging more than 7km at its deepest point near the South Sandwich Islands, the Southern Ocean is unusually deep in global terms. 

But so is the deep, deep trouble that faces an ocean region that also embraces the Antarctic Circumpolar Current — our planet’s climate engine. 

Here, the diversity of animals — many are found nowhere else on the planet — is exceptional, while large surviving marine ecosystems represent unmatched ecological, scientific and diplomatic value. 

The Southern Ocean is also a global sea-level moderator.

So why is this sensitive, emissions-battered biosphere at the bottom of the world — critical to known life in the observable universe — still in the apparent crosshairs of about 12 nations for, among others, a fraction of the world’s fishmeal supplies?

Seen against this rhetorical question, it may seem no small wonder that the Southern Hemisphere’s frigid blue heart is still being fished at all. 

Now an international group of scientists has called on Antarctica’s fish products and research body, meeting in Tasmania during closed-door talks, to reconsider how it manages a 10% stretch of the world’s oceans, which is pounded by multiple stressors. Especially, it would seem, fishing interests and the climate crisis. 

Writing in a trenchant call-to-action published in the journal Science, an A-list of polar scientists — led by the University of Colorado Boulder — notes: “The region and its suite of global values are critically threatened by climate change, which is exacerbated by commercial fishing, an activity that provides value for relatively few industrial actors.” 

Apart from the US, the international cohort of authors is also based in Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Norway, South Africa and Switzerland.

Food for everyone — except those who need it most?

CCAMLR, called “Camelahr” by those in the know, is often lauded for its achievements as the marine species conservator of the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), the international framework that has reserved the region below 60°S latitude for peaceful and scientific ideals since 1959.

But this commission is restricted to just 26 decision-maker states, plus the EU — a number that now includes Ecuador joining during the present meeting. South Africa and Namibia are the only African states, alongside world powers such as China, France, Russia, the UK and the US.

If anything, it is a low-profile club of heavyweight nations gathered in the Tasmanian capital of Hobart for two-week deliberations — even though it is the cleaner-energy transition by all humanity that will ultimately decide what happens to remote waters connecting all other major oceans. 

Indeed, the Science paper suggests that the CCAMLR meeting is a “critical moment”. 

Among agenda items are efforts to consider widely supported marine parks — or marine protected areas — in East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the west Antarctic Peninsula. If proclaimed, these four million sq km parks would be the first of their kind since the two million sq km Ross Sea marine park was declared 80% off-limits to fisheries. (Fishing is forbidden in the 94,000km2 South Orkney Islands protected area.)

Also up for discussion are more sustainable methods of harvesting krill — mini carbon-sequestrating powerhouses that also stimulate “primary production” in the Southern Ocean food web. 

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization has suggested these critters may be underfished and could even bolster food security — but the authors counter that krill exploitation “benefits very few and comes at a high cost of increasingly compromising the ecosystem”. 

“The krill caught are not used as a direct food source for people but as fishmeal for farmed salmon and shrimp, as well as in premium-priced krill oil supplements,” they claim. “Overall, these products make up less than 1% of the global fishmeal and supplements markets.” Some of it may end up as pet food

Regional fisheries dominated by the league of 12-odd nations, in fact, “threaten the Southern Ocean ecosystem”, the paper argues.

This analysis is about as hard-hitting as the diplomatic language of science allows — at least in the generally polite discourse of Antarctic cooperation. But lead author Professor Cassandra M Brooks, an Antarctic marine-conservation scholar at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Our Burning Planet there was a reason for rocking these boats. 

“The climate and biodiversity crises are compelling scientists to take stronger advocacy roles,” Brooks says. “The fact is that the health of the entire planet and all of us living on it depends on the Antarctic.”

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‘Forced labour’

Fluctuating annually between 11 and 14 member states, a total of 13 states have registered about 45 vessels in the commission-controlled area over the past year. These exclude Russia, an Antarctic fishing state that has not registered a vessel since New Zealand accused it of breaching fishing regulations in early 2020.  

ATS co-founding signatory Norway took by far the most krill in 2021: about 240,000 tonnes. A North Atlantic whaling state that has killed thousands of these large mammals since the 1982 commercial moratorium entered into force, Norway also chairs the ATS’s Committee for Environmental Protection. The Nordic state’s krill harvests have more than doubled since 2012, while harvests by other states have remained more or less constant. China, the second-biggest krill harvester in the Southern Ocean, caught just shy of 50,000 tonnes. 

The region’s top predator — Patagonian toothfish — is also a primary target of Southern Ocean fisheries, and though the species is processed for food, it ends up as “Chilean sea bass” on upmarket dinner plates in Asia, Europe and the US. 

And, “there are other social consequences”.

“Like other fisheries operating in international waters,” the Science paper notes, “some toothfish operations support forced labour on their vessels, and accidents with loss of life at sea are not uncommon.” 

If these fisheries continue to be sustainable in the financial sense, it may be because of state support. 

“Many of these fisheries continue to be economically viable only on account of government subsidies, which, as shown throughout the world, can contribute to overfishing,” the authors write. 

South Africa’s only registered Antarctic fishing vessel, Koryo Maru No. 11, is authorised to catch toothfish, but when approached for comment, spokesperson Albi Modise of South Africa’s fisheries department said: “In terms of our communications protocol, staff members do not talk to the media directly; all media queries must be sent to Communications.”

“Communications” did not respond to our questions. 

Only ‘1% of the biomass of 60 million tonnes’

Responding to our questions, CCAMLR executive secretary Dr David Agnew noted that krill feeds more than farmed fish and the supplements industry. 

“Krill products include whole krill for human consumption — for instance, as canned krill,” Agnew wrote by email. 

Agnew declined to comment on the recommendations in the Science paper, but he emphasised that fisheries management “takes the key role of krill in the ecosystem into account”. 

Catch limits, he points out, are part of the commission’s conservation targets. In this way, “at least 75% of the krill population remains to maintain the Antarctic ecosystem and provide prey for predators”. 

In Antarctica’s Atlantic sector, Agnew says, “two comprehensive multivessel acoustic surveys conducted in 2000 and 2019 each determined that krill biomass in the area was about 60 million tonnes”.

The commission has introduced “a precautionary annual catch limit of 620,00 tonnes”. This would be just “1% of the biomass of 60 million tonnes. Over the last three years the catch has been about 400,000 tonnes annually.”

There has “been very little or no fishing in recent years” in the Indian Ocean sector, he says. Under exploratory fishery measures for the remaining sectors, fishing is limited to 15,000 tonnes “in any area”, and requires pre-notification, data collection and research plans.  

“To date, no fishing activity has taken place in any area under this measure.”

That may be laudable. But krill catches have been at record highs since the early 1990s. 

Some species, such as marbled rockcod, “remain at a fraction of their estimated pre-exploitation levels, despite ongoing regional fishery closures”, according to the paper.  

And that 1% may seem like a minnow … but does ‘small’ actually equal ‘precautionary’? A separate 2020 paper by penguin experts, published in the journal Nature, thinks this is not always the case. 

“We have much left to comprehend,” adds Dr Luis R Pertierra, a co-author of the Science paper, based at the University of Pretoria. A penguin macroecology specialist, Pertierra argues: “Rather than using this uncertainty to blindly increase bycatches, the reverse play would be more cautious.”

The South African polar scientist Steven Chown, a former president of the influential Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, is also a co-author. Chown is now based at Monash University in Melbourne, as director of Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future, a new scientific initiative by the Australian Research Council.  

Amassing in ‘predator hotspots’

Protocol may not always apply to Southern Ocean fisheries, the authors suggest, because “the cumulative catch in some of these coastal regions can be greater than the amount consumed by local predators, and greater than the local replenishable population of krill”. 

Vessels are increasingly amassing in “predator hotspots” where competing fish, mammals and birds also like to be, the paper says.

Ice melt due to climate change has “further enabled vessel access”, plus year-round fishing in “prime krill fishing grounds”. 

“Recent modelling has indicated that combined effects of krill fishing and climate change are potentially disastrous for populations of penguins and other predators,” explain the authors. 

Such predators may include emperor penguins, newly listed as endangered by the US. Krill fisheries do not necessarily go near the birds’ breeding sites, but a separate paper by penguin experts contends not enough is known about where juvenile and non-breeding birds forage.

“This localised depletion has substantial potential consequences for predators, including visiting whale populations, which are still recovering from historic depletion.”

Last year, “as a result of direct competition”, the krill fishery “for the first time incidentally killed three juvenile humpback whales”. It is an inglorious milestone, one that becomes grimmer when considering that, over the past two seasons, “at least 16 seals and 60 petrels and other seabirds” were killed. 

The commission seeks “to avoid catches being concentrated in areas important to predators”, Agnew responds, but the Science paper thinks such efforts fall short of its mandate as Southern Ocean traffic wardens. 

“There are insufficient measures in place,” the paper says, “to ensure that the fishery is not detrimentally competing with predators or to prohibit (or even limit) incidental catch of whales in the krill fishery.” 

Climate change: an ‘important’ agenda item

In 2022 alone, Antarctic temperatures, at times, have soared by up to 40°C above average, the Southern Ocean has hit record ice lows and shelves have crumbled off East Antarctica — that part of the world’s greatest deep-freeze previously thought rather stable. West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier holds enough sea-level rise to rewrite Cape Town’s coastline and, with that, redraw shores across the world. This year, we also learnt that this “wild-card” glacier is “holding on today by its fingernails”

But, if anything sticks out when probing the region’s fisheries, it is arguably the Antarctic Peninsula, a finger of land that protrudes about 1,300km out of the vaguely fist-shaped continent, and curves towards South America, like a sore thumb. 

The peninsula is not only warming rapidly, the paper says, but vessels, fuelled by a “disproportionate carbon footprint” due to the remoteness of target species, throng here too. 

“Krill, in particular, owing to dependence on sea ice and vulnerability to acidification, are seen as extremely high risk from climate change.”  

Agnew says he gets it. 

CCAMLR annually reviews the impact of climate change on the Antarctic marine ecosystem and on its work,” he explains and, during the current meeting, “this will be an important agenda item”.

The commission claims its conservation mandate is informed by “the best-available science”.

For instance, “Preserving the key role of krill in the ecosystem, maintaining the ecological relationships between harvested, dependent and related species, and preventing changes to the Antarctic marine ecosystem, are fundamental objectives of the CAMLR Convention (Article II),” Agnew says. “The commission’s ecosystem and precautionary-based management approaches show how this is achieved.”

Yet, representing some of the Antarctic’s best-available scientists, the Science authors argue that the ecosystem impacts of harvesting toothfish — including areas “heavily targeted” by illegal, unregulated and unreported fisheries in the 1990s — “remain largely unknown and debated”. 

‘We can do extraordinary things’  

Brooks says the commission oversees an impressive sweep of scientific projects that monitor fisheries, ecosystems, debris and incidental mortalities. Forged in 1982, its very founding objective was conserving Antarctic marine life and regulating regional fisheries.

(The ATS’s abandoned 1988 mining pact claimed similarly noble ideas — thus, regulating possible Antarctic minerals extraction — until environmental protests decided this was a really awful idea and collapsed the publicly controversial project.)

And though the paper cites resistance to more stringent catch limits by member states as “preventing progress”, Brooks says she wants to be optimistic about the commission’s mandate, and its ability to execute it. 

“We can do extraordinary things in the Antarctic,” she insists. “At the height of the Cold War in 1959, countries came together and signed the Antarctic Treaty — suspending sovereignty, banning nuclear and military operations, and dedicating the continent to peace and science.”

Despite tensions between the UK and the US over catch limits around the South Georgia islands, this week most commission members will roundly agree that those extraordinary outcomes would be approving marine park proposals — opposed annually by China and Russia under the commission’s consensus-based system.

Of course, strange things have happened in this world before, such as the mining pact’s collapse, which made way for the ATS’s famous environmental constitution that, indeed, bans mining in the Antarctic. 

But not thwarting marine parks would effectively roll out a red carpet to Ukraine, which is due to assume the commission’s rotating leadership in 2023 and 2024. 

And Russia, which has searched the Southern Ocean for oil and gas ever since the 1998 mining ban entered into force, and fired a missile that landed ‘15m’ from Kyiv’s now-damaged Antarctic headquarters in October, may not want to hand Ukraine that diplomatic coup. The Eastern European country’s research vessel Noosfera has been at anchor in Cape Town since May, unable to return home.

Moratorium as a last resort

In a diplomatic note seen by Our Burning Planet, Ukraine’s Antarctic authorities have listed some of their key priorities for this week’s discussions about its pending chairship of the intergovernmental organisation, which it would inherit from Sweden.  

Among these priorities, Ukraine is “actively involved in CCAMLR’s research activities given its undoubted commitment to conservation” and “its interest in the rational use of Antarctic marine living resources”.

But, here, Ukraine must also contend with China, which sent a polar bear-shaped wrecking ball through a penguin rescue plan during the ATS’s mid-year meeting, by claiming both species were effectively doing quite well, thereby justifying a veto. (Russia supported the penguin plan.)

Against this backdrop of metastasising sandpit politics, Brooks agrees a moratorium is not a pragmatic first resort. 

“There are other tools available for conservation,” she points out, “such as closing fisheries for finfish, and allowing them to recover.”  

But, given the Southern Ocean’s “proven” climate and fisheries vulnerabilities, “a real reassessment of current practices may make an indefinite moratorium appropriate until the climate crisis is better managed”, the authors of the Science paper observe, while unpacking a substantive suite of tools and recommendations. 

Interventions such as these “could boost global climate change mitigation and ensure that Antarctica, as an exceptional global treasure, is not exploited for the benefit of short-term gain for few at the expense of many”. DM/OBP  

Absa OBP

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