Human impacts in Antarctica

Fuel drums mostly covered with snow. People in the background.
Abandoned fuel drums at the now-closed Wilkes Station (Photo: Troy Metcalfe)
Square buckets filled with tiny red krillSix tourists sit either side of an inflatable boat while the driver lifts the engine out of the water as they beach.Employee checks field clothing for any likely alien travellers.A scientist in a white protective suit leans over a pond and scoops out water.Tourists explore Antarctica

Antarctica is often thought of as a pristine land untouched by human disturbance. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. For a little more than 100 years people have been travelling to Antarctica and in that short time most parts have been visited and we have left more than just footprints.

Human impacts include:

  • harvesting some Antarctic species to the verge of extinction for economic benefit,
  • killing and disturbing other species,
  • contaminating the soils, and
  • discharging sewage to the sea and leaving rubbish, cairns and tracks in even the most remote parts.

Changing attitudes

More recently attitudes have changed as we begin to realise that there are few unvisited places left on Earth and that they are of enormous value to humanity. The clean air, water and ice of Antarctica are now of global importance to science for understanding how the Earth's environment is changing both naturally and as a result of human activity. Tourist operators are beginning to tap into the huge demand to visit the last great wilderness on Earth. Paradoxically both science and tourism have the potential to damage the very qualities that draw them to Antarctica.

Scales of environmental impacts in Antarctica

Environmental impacts in Antarctica occur at a range of spatial scales.

  • At the largest scale are the effects in Antarctica of planet-wide impacts such as global warming, ozone depletion and global contamination caused by the application of technology elsewhere in the world.
  • More localised, but still with the potential to cause region-wide effects, are the impacts of fishing and hunting. Mining is now prohibited under the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty (known as the Madrid Protocol).
  • More localised still are the impacts of visitors, such as scientists or tourists, to the region.

Global impacts of the industrial world show in Antarctica

Global change may adversely affect the Antarctic environment and its fauna and flora. For example, global warming may contribute to the break-up of large areas of ice-shelf and cause loss of habitat for animals dependent on the ice-shelf; increasing UV radiation may cause changes to phytoplankton communities, with impacts occurring up the food chain.

Global change may also bring about changes in Antarctica that could have serious environmental consequences elsewhere in the world, for example changes in the amount of water locked up in Antarctic ice may contribute to global sea level change.

Finally, the Antarctic region is a sensitive indicator of global change. The polar ice cap holds within it a record of past atmospheres that go back hundreds of thousands of years, allowing study of the earth's natural climate cycles against which the significance of recent changes can be judged.

Impacts of hunting and fishing

Hunting for whales and seals drew people to the Antarctic in the early years of the 19th century and within only a few decades caused major crashes in wildlife populations. The Antarctic fur seal was at the verge of extinction at many locations by 1830, resulting in a decline in the sealing industry although sealing continued at a smaller scale well into the last century.

Sealing

The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) was initiated in response to concerns that the sealing industry could be re-opened after some exploratory research to investigate the viability of sealing in the 1960s. Although commercial sealing did not recommence, the CCAS did establish a regime for sealing providing for permissible catch limits for crabeater, leopard and Weddell seals, a zoning system with closed seasons and total protection for Ross seals, southern elephant seals and certain species of fur seal. However, under Australian law Australians would not be granted a permit for commercial sealing in the Antarctic Treaty area.

The seal populations of Macquarie Island have been protected by the island’s status as a wildlife sanctuary since 1933. The seals of Australia’s subantarctic islands were further protected in 1997 when both Macquarie and the Heard and McDonald Islands were added to the World Heritage list. The exploited seal populations of the Southern Ocean have in recent years recovered very substantially and are no longer endangered.

Whaling

Whaling in the Southern Ocean began in earnest in the early 1900s and grew very quickly so that by 1910 it provided 50% of the world's catch. The history of whaling is a repeated sequence of targeting the most profitable species, depleting stocks to unviable commercial levels and moving on to previously less favoured species. Declining catches motivated international attempts to regulate whaling and led to the establishment of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which first met in 1949. For many years the IWC had little success as an organisation that was established to manage whales as a sustainable resource, however falling profits did succeed in driving many companies out of the whaling business.

In the 1960s the IWC became more effective when blue and humpback whales were fully protected; protection was extended to fin and sei whales in the 1970s and in 1986 the IWC decided to suspend all commercial whaling. Since the moratorium was initiated, whaling has been limited to one or two countries that harvest whales under the ‘scientific whaling’ provisions set by the IWC. There are some indications that whale populations are beginning to recover but such long-lived species with low reproductive rates are incapable of rebuilding their numbers in just a few years.

Fishing

Fishing is the only large-scale commercial resource harvest currently undertaken in the Antarctic Treaty area now that sealing has effectively ceased an whaling has significantly decreased. The major negative effects of fisheries are:

  • potential for over-fishing of target species
  • effects on predator populations dependant on the target species as a food source
  • mortality of non-target species caught by fishing equipment
  • destruction of habitat

Over-exploitation has been a characteristic of most major fisheries world-wide and, unless the controls established for Antarctic fisheries are enforced, the Southern Ocean will be no exception to this. The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) came into force in 1982, as part of the Antarctic Treaty System, with the aim of regulating exploitation rather than outright protection. CCAMLR was established at a time when commercial interests in krill were growing rapidly; it began to be more effective as a management regime in 1991 when the first catch limits were set.

From the outset CCAMLR was based on the principle that management of fisheries should include not just the target species but also dependent and associated species and their ecological relationships. As a consequence, much research effort has been directed towards understanding the interactions between krill and their predators.

After the convention was established the krill fishery did not continue to grow as it had previously, in part due to the withdrawal of the Soviet fleet after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, and also because the cost of fishing and the value of krill in the market place meant that it was economically marginal. This hesitation in the growth of the industry has allowed some breathing space for those managing the fishery, however the economics are changing and there is now demand for krill as a food source for aquaculture and bait. As a consequence, the 1999 catch of 100,000 tonnes was more than doubled in 2010 to over 210,000 tonnes.

The fish of the Southern Ocean have been the subject of exploratory fishing since the start of the century, however large-scale fishing did not develop until the late 1960s when the Soviet Union targeted marbled notothenid and icefish around South Georgia.

The fishery has not recovered from the early peak (400,000 tonnes harvested in 1969-70) and the subsequent rapid decline. The Patagonian toothfish has recently been targeted at a number of locations in the subantarctic.

The fishery has attracted unauthorised operators from several countries that are working outside the regulatory framework. Illegal, unregulated or unreported (IUU) fishing is of concern because it has the potential to undermine attempts to manage fish stocks sustainably. In 1999, CCAMLR adopted a catch documentation scheme which will help prevent illegally caught fish entering the markets of CCAMLR nations. IUU fishing is also a concern because it may involve the use of fishing techniques that can cause the death of non-target species as by-catch.

In particular, albatrosses are taken inadvertently by long-line fishing. CCAMLR has introduced a Conservation Measure to reduce the incidence of seabird mortality during long-lining. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority limits the fishery around Heard and Macquarie Islands to trawling to minimise the impacts on seabirds. The Australian Antarctic Division has recently established the Antarctic Marine Living Resources program to provide the scientific basis for ecologically sustainable management of Southern Ocean fisheries.

Visitors and tourists

With the exception of those involved in fisheries, most visitors to the Antarctic go either as tourists or as part of national scientific programs. In many aspects the type of activities undertaken and the potential environmental impacts are common to all visitors. Irrespective of their reason for being in Antarctica, people will visit sites with spectacular scenery and in particular will visit wildlife colonies. However, there are some significant differences.

Although nearly three times as many people visit the Antarctic as tourists than as part of national programs, the number of person-days on the ground in Antarctica for national programs far exceeds the number for tourism. This is because national programs have been characterised to date by the establishment of permanent or semi-permanent stations, mostly in the ice-free areas, staffed by long-term (wintering) and short-term (summer only) personnel.

Most large-scale tourists operations are ship-based and landings are limited to a few hours at selected locations. There is a trend towards more independent, yacht-based visits and to adventure activities such as over-night camping, mountain climbing and scuba diving but this is unlikely to increase the number of person-days ashore to the point that tourism exceeds government activity in the foreseeable future.

Undoing past damage

The main concerns for environmental management are how to ameliorate past environmental impacts and how to reduce current and future impacts. Within the Australian Antarctic program we are developing procedures for the clean-up and remediation of abandoned work sites and disused tip sites. In the early days of Australia's Antarctic program waste management consisted of disposal to open tips and the practice of sea-icing which involved pushing waste onto the sea ice. Sea-iced material would travel out with the ice as it broke up at the beginning of summer to be dispersed among the marine environment. Commitment to the Madrid Protocol confers the obligation to clean-up abandoned work sites and waste tips so long as the process of clean-up does not cause greater adverse impacts or cause the removal of historic sites or monuments. Research is currently underway by Australian scientists to develop cleanup and remediation procedures that will not cause greater impacts. Methods for detecting and monitoring impacts, particularly in the adjacent marine environment are also being developed.

Environmental protection

Environmental auditing, compulsory environmental impact assessments, a permitting system and a system of protected areas are among the arsenal of management tools available for reducing current and future impacts of activities in Antarctica. Environmental audits are used to assess our activities. A system of environmental impact assessment is included in the Madrid Protocol (and Australian legislation). The system, adopted by all nations operating in Antarctica, involves a preliminary assessment to determine the scale of impact likely to occur and whether more detailed assessment is necessary. A permit system has also been established to regulate and monitor certain activities such as entry to protected areas and the collection of samples. The Madrid Protocol established a system for area protection and management, which will be used to protect areas of outstanding environmental, scientific, historic, aesthetic or wilderness value. This system replaces the system of Specially Protected Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest previously designated by Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings.

Some environmental disturbance is an inevitable consequence of activities in Antarctica. These include emissions to the atmosphere such as exhaust; disturbance to the physical environment such as tracks from walking and vehicles; and disturbance to wildlife by visitors and vehicles. Environmental research and environmental management tools are used to reduce this disturbance. For example, research is being directed towards the potential for alternative energy sources to replace traditional fuels, the protected area system is used to ensure that vehicles are not used in particularly vulnerable landscapes and information from animal behavioural research is used as the basis for new guidelines to ensure that helicopters do not cause harm or disturbance to aggregations of wildlife by flying too close.

Introduced species

Other, potentially more serious impacts are not inevitable and may never happen, but our presence in Antarctica means that there is a finite possibility that they will occur. Of particular concern is the risk of introducing species, including disease-causing species. Introduced species have caused major environmental problems on every other continent of the world and have caused significant changes to the ecology of most subantarctic islands. Although we can not remove the risk entirely, procedures are being developed on the basis of research findings to reduce the chance of introductions. Australia hosted the first international meeting to consider disease in Antarctic wildlife and has been asked to convene a group to develop practical measures to diminish the risk of introduction and spread of diseases to Antarctic wildlife.

Australian environmental initiatives

Gaining recognition as an international leader in Antarctic environmental management is one of the Government’s priorities for the Australian Antarctic program and the ethos of environmental protection suffuses all aspects of the program. The AAD, as lead agency for the Antarctic program, ensures that everyone involved in the program is aware of their personal responsibility to care for the environment. At appointment, all expeditioners must agree to abide by the Code of Personal behaviour, which includes a practical commitment to Australia's environmental management responsibilities. Induction and training of new employees includes an introduction to the AAD's approach to environmental matters. At the Antarctic stations, the station leader is responsible for environmental management and is assisted by the station environment committee, a station environmental officer and a station waste management officer.

At the headquarters of the AAD at Kingston, the Territories, Environment and Treaties Section and the Operations Environment Officer are responsible for ensuring that all activities are planned carefully to avoid environmental harm and to develop policies that minimise unavoidable detrimental effects on the natural environment.
The Human Impacts Research Program undertakes research to ensure that environmental management decisions are based on the best scientific information. The Antarctic Marine Living Resources Research Program provides information that will be of use in managing the harvesting of species in the Southern Oceans.

Internationally, Australia has taken a leading role in promoting environmental protection within the Antarctic Treaty System since its inception. Australians were active in establishing the Agreed Measures in 1964 and the decision by Australia and France not to sign the Minerals Convention and to push for a protocol that accorded comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment led to the negotiation and signing of the Madrid Protocol. Australia is continuing its efforts within the Antarctic Treaty System to secure protection of the environment through contributions to the Committee for Environmental Protection, which was established to provide environmental advice to the Treaty Consultative meetings. Scientists and policy advisors from the Antarctic Division participate in CCAMLR and information arising from Australian research has been the basis for Conservation Measures adopted by the Commission.

This page was last modified on 3 April 2012.