Marine science tackles big resource questions

From tentative first steps in the late 1970s, Australian research in Antarctic marine biology is now participating in international programs aimed at ensuring that harvesting of Southern Ocean living species can be sustained without harming this vital resource. The task is as herculean as it is important.

Australian research into Antarctic marine biology began in the late 1970s, spurred on by the establishment of the international BIOMASS (Biological Investigations into Marine Antarctic Systems and Stocks) Program. Driven by the development of a fishery for krill, BIOMASS looked at the distribution and abundance of Antarctic krill, seeking information on the interrelationships between krill and the other elements of the marine ecosystem.

Australian Antarctic marine research was made feasible by the conversion of the supply ship Nella Dan into a functional research vessel, in which the Australian Antarctic Division made its first concerted forays into open ocean research. Australia was a participant in the highly successful 1981 First International BIOMASS experiment (FIBEX) – the first attempt to survey the distribution and abundance of Antarctic krill using acoustic techniques. The results from this huge effort, using 13 ships from 11 nations, were translated 10 years later into catch limits for the krill fishery in the Atlantic and South West Indian sectors of the Southern Ocean. The Second International BIOMASS Experiment (SIBEX) was fraught with logistic difficulties.

In parallel with the scientific focus on the waters around Antarctica, diplomatic efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s concentrated on developing a regime to manage the harvesting of krill, fish and squid in the Southern Ocean. The ground-breaking 1982 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) took an 'ecosystem approach' to management. It recognised the central importance of krill in the Antarctic food web and the need to protect the recovery of seals and whales from past over-exploitation.

The Convention is overseen by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (also known as CCAMLR) which first met in Hobart in 1981 and has since met there annually. The Commission uses the advice of its Scientific Committee to set catch regulations on the fisheries in Antarctic and subantarctic waters. The major fisheries in the region have been those for krill in Antarctic waters and for a number of fish species, such as icefish, Antarctic rock cod and Patagonian toothfish in the Subantarctic.

Australia's research program has become the prime source of information to CCAMLR on the harvested species and on the wider marine ecosystem off East Antarctica. It has included:

  • A CCAMLR Ecosystem Monitoring Program established near Mawson station in 1989.
  • An AAD krill research program, including a series of krill surveys in the Prydz Bay region in the early 1980s to the early 1990s and a single large-scale krill survey off East Antarctica in 1996. These surveys were used by CCAMLR to set precautionary catch limits in the waters off the Australian Antarctic Territory.
  • Fish surveys in the Prydz Bay area in the early 1990s and then around Heard Island, where scientific surveys in the early 1990s were used by CCAMLR to establish management procedures for this region. From 1997 an Australian-based fishery for Patagonian toothfish in the Heard Island area has led to an increased focus on fisheries research by the AAD.

In 1999 Australia established a new Antarctic Marine Living Resources (AMLR) Program specifically to provide information that can be used by CCAMLR, and by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), to regulate fisheries in Antarctic and subantarctic waters. This science program conducts strategic research into issues such as stock assessment of fish and krill, incidental mortality of seabirds in long-line fisheries, ecosystem monitoring, the development of novel techniques to examine ecosystem interactions, ecosystem modeling and research into the life history parameters of harvested and dependent species.

Although harvesting of fish is unlikely to increase into the future because of a lack of further significant stocks to exploit, fish remain a controversial research subject because of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing on the valuable populations of Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish.

The krill fishery is unique amongst the worlds' fisheries in that the current catch (~100,000 tonnes per year) is so much lower than the conservatively estimated precautionary catch limit (~5 million tonnes a year). It is highly likely that this fishery will increase as new uses and processes are developed and this increase will require careful management. Squid are also thought to be abundant in Antarctic waters but no viable fishery has yet been established.

The existence of these fisheries and the continued demand for quality scientific information on harvested species, dependent species and on the Southern Ocean ecosystem will ensure that Australia will require a scientific program focused on Antarctic fisheries into the foreseeable future.

Stephen Nicol,
Antarctic Marine Living Resources Program