Why the Antarctic needs our care

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean constitute the planet’s last great wilderness; yet even that far-away region is becoming increasingly overcrowded.

There are fishing boats, both legal and illegal, including a new breed that vacuum krill from the sea.

There are commercial tourism operations, research ships, private yachts, whaling fleets, and supply vessels.

In the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), we are concerned that the increasing number and size of vessels – which operate in many respects outside effective regulation – coupled with the lack of appropriate requirements for ice-strengthening or a prohibition on using heavy-grade fuel oils, leaves the region open to significant risks.

I am sure that general awareness of risks from shipping to the Antarctic and its wildlife has been heightened by recent accidents in the region.

Most prominent was the quick sinking of the M/S Explorer in late November 2007, a well-known commercial tourism vessel that was purpose-built for the Antarctic several decades ago.

Fortunately, everyone on board was rescued, and just minor pollution resulted from the light diesel fuel it carried.

But that accident is a wake-up call – had it not occurred in perfect weather conditions, with other vessels close by to rescue the passengers and crew, there could have been a tragedy.

Next time we won’t be as lucky.

Weak regulations

A number of other recent incidents in the Southern Ocean have resulted in pollution or in vessels adrift and out of control:

the M/V Lyubov Orlova ran aground at Deception Island in the South Shetlands in November 2006 and needed assistance to be re-floated

the M/V Nordkapp, another commercial tourism vessel, grounded at Deception Island in January 2007 spilling marine diesel

the M/S Fram lost power on 30 December 2007 along the Antarctic Peninsula and drifted into an iceberg

the trawler Argos Georgia was adrift for 15 days in ice after losing power while fishing in the Ross Sea off Antarctica’s northern coast on 23 December last year

in early 2007, an explosion and fire on the Nisshin Maru, the Japanese whale processing ship, resulted in one death and loss of power for several days under dangerous conditions in sensitive waters

The fact that certain types of vessels, many of them not ice-strengthened, are concentrated at certain times of the year and in relatively few areas puts at risk the lives of crews and passengers as well as the wildlife and environment of the Antarctic.

But it isn’t only the increased risk of shipping accidents that worries us. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body responsible for regulating shipping internationally, designated the Southern Ocean as a “special area”, banning the disposal at sea or on shore of oily residues, chemicals and rubbish from ships – a good first step.

All these wastes should be kept on board by vessels operating in the Southern Ocean and disposed of when they return to their port of origin.

However, ships don’t only generate these wastes, but also sewage and grey water (particularly on the larger cruise ships), as well as sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide from the burning of fuel oil, and toxic chemicals from the paints used on their hulls to prevent bio-fouling.

Some vessels carry invasive or alien species on their hulls or in their ballast tanks.

The whaling fleet dumps large quantities of waste in the Southern Ocean every year, and re-fuels within the Antarctic Treaty area with a vessel registered under a Panamanian flag.

Overall, these sources of pollution remain inadequately regulated by the IMO, the International Whaling Commission or the Antarctic Treaty System. These organisations need to work together effectively.

Holes in the ship