Australia in the Antarctic Treaty System

Prime Minister Menzies and Minister for Navy, John Gorton at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, Canberra 1961.
Prime Minister Menzies and Minister for Navy, John Gorton, at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, Canberra 1961. (Photo: National Archives of Australia)
Delegates at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Hobart, 2012.

Australia is a staunch supporter of the Antarctic Treaty system. The three pillars of that system are the Antarctic Treaty, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty and the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

The Antarctic Treaty system establishes Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science and puts in place principles for the governance of the region. These include freedom of scientific investigation, free exchange of scientific information, protection of the positions of Antarctic Treaty Parties on issues of sovereignty, and the non-militarisation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

Australia was a key architect and one of the 12 original signatories to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Between 1959 and 2016, 41 other countries have acceded to the Treaty. All countries with an active interest in Antarctica are Parties to the Antarctic Treaty and science binds them together in peaceful collaboration and common purpose. Increasing international engagement in Antarctica, consistent with the pillars of the Antarctic Treaty system and its principles, is welcome.

We continue to play a leading and influential role in international Antarctic affairs. Australia works closely with fellow Antarctic Treaty Parties to ensure the effective governance of the region, to undertake important scientific investigation, and to conserve and protect Antarctica’s unique environment. Australia has been, and continues to be, a leader in environmental stewardship, comprehensive environmental protection and ecosystem conservation in Antarctica.

In 1991, Australia and other Antarctic Treaty Parties signed an historic pact to protect the Antarctic environment. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty provides for the comprehensive protection of Antarctica’s environment and bans mining and oil drilling. The Protocol outlines a system of environmental principles, measures and standards, which require that care for the environment is a fundamental consideration in the planning and conduct of all activities in Antarctica. The result is a legally binding and comprehensive environmental protection regime tailored for the special environmental and geographical characteristics of the Antarctic region. This regime is informed and underpinned by scientific research and advice provided by Antarctic Treaty Parties working together in close cooperation and collaboration.

Antarctic Treaty Parties have committed to the comprehensive environmental protection regime enshrined in the Protocol, including its enduring mining prohibition. This year, 2016, marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Protocol and Australia will join the international community in celebrating its achievements and its ongoing relevance.

Australia is also an original party to the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, and Hobart hosts its secretariat. The Convention’s objective is the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, where the definition of conservation includes rational use.

The Convention was the first international agreement to apply an ecosystem approach to marine living resources conservation. It requires that consideration is given to all species in the ecosystem and to conserving ecological relationships. Krill, finfish and all other living resources of the Southern Ocean, are treated as an integrated system where the effects on predator, prey and related species are considered, and decisions on sustainable harvesting levels are made on the basis of sound scientific advice. This approach is particularly important for krill which are the keystone species in the Southern Ocean ecosystem.

Australia has a strong reputation as a responsible manager of and participant in Antarctic fisheries and works with other countries to ensure ecologically sustainable fisheries and to prevent, deter and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Australia’s Heard Island and McDonald Islands toothfish fishery is one of Australia’s most valuable Commonwealth fisheries and has Marine Stewardship Council Certification.

The Antarctic Treaty system has been a hallmark of international cooperation for more than 50 years and supporting it will remain a key priority for Australia into the future. The Australian Antarctic Strategy reaffirms Australia’s engagement in Antarctica and recognises the continued importance of valuing, studying, conserving and protecting its unique environment.