A Treaty on Ice
A DESOLATE island in a frozen sea brings the world’s nations together with a new type of agreement: one giving an international commission the right to govern a landmass through unanimous vote. The year was 1912; the subject was the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Ocean. Thereafter, it and the surrounding archipelago were to belong to no nation, its natural resources open to all.
That agreement was no doubt on the minds of the drafters of the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed to much fanfare 50 years ago Tuesday by 12 nations: Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Britain, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union and the United States.
The pact was a remarkable achievement considering the circumstances: it was the height of the cold war and a time of heightened tensions, including an exchange of gunfire in 1952 between Argentine and British expeditions. Seven nations had carved out overlapping territories on the bottom of the earth and had been previously unwilling to cooperate.
Nonetheless, thanks to the treaty, Antarctica was demilitarized, its frozen peaks and glaciers transformed into the world’s largest nature preserve and an international scientific laboratory. The land claims of the seven nations were neither recognized nor disputed — they were “left to die a natural death,” as The Times’s correspondent Walter Sullivan put it — but each keeps a proprietary eye over its patch of tundra.
The treaty dictates use of the continent to this day. At its annual meeting this fall in Tasmania, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources — a body created under the treaty in 1982 to protect marine life — agreed to create the first marine protected area in the region, which will put 36,000 square miles of ocean near the South Orkney Islands off limits to fishing or waste disposal.
Sound impressive? Actually, the newly protected area covers just a tiny fraction of the southern ocean. The original proposal was broader, but people who were involved tell me it was whittled down to make room for an experimental crab fishery. A plan to put scientific observers on every krill-fishing boat was also scaled back.
Worse, this sort of environmental timidity on the ocean pretty much sums up the 50-year history of the Antarctic Treaty. Year after year, the marine conservation commission defeats or defangs nearly every progressive proposal put before it. As we consider the treaty’s anniversary, it is worth considering whether the waters off Antarctica would be better off without it, instead leaving each nation with a historical claim to defend its own slice of the ocean’s bounty.
When I traveled to Antarctica as part of a scientific team in 2001, I devoured a delicious, flaky filet of Antarctic toothfish that had been harvested from the Ross Sea by a team from the University of Illinois. Little did I know how privileged I was. In the last six years, that research team has not caught another toothfish. Poor management and pirate fishing boats operating under flags of convenience have depleted the stock, threatening an ecosystem that supports penguins and killer whales. In October, Australian authorities discovered an illegal gill net, 80 miles long, swelling with 31 tons of toothfish.
The problem is not just a matter of powerful fishing countries like Norway and Japan outmaneuvering the conservation lobby, but a fundamental shortcoming of international agreements like the Antarctic Treaty. Because the conservation commission requires a unanimous vote for any sort of environmental action, it can be held hostage by a single party.
At the recent annual meeting, the commission again ignored scientific advice and struck down a market-based measure to fight rogue fisheries. The plan would have allowed nations to reject fish imports from countries that allow illegal vessels into their ports, but Argentina scuttled it, arguing that it was a threat to international law.
Other measures, like a blacklist of boats connected to illegal fishing, are rarely enforced and easily circumvented. For instance, when a Russian vessel called the Volna was placed on a provisional list in 2006, Russia disputed the evidence and vetoed the decision. New Zealand called Russia’s move a threat to the Antarctic Treaty system. But even if the boat had been added to the blacklist, it is doubtful that it would have been denied service at ports. According to a report from the Pew Environment Group, since 2004 blacklisted vessels have made 27 visits to ports that are committed to the treaty system.
By contrast, many countries that have their own island territories in the region have fought back against illegal fishing. In the 1990s, an estimated one-third of the toothfish harvest around Heard Island, an Australian territory, was illegally obtained; but since Australia and France, which controls other nearby islands, stepped up enforcement in 2002, that number has dropped to about one-tenth. Recently an Australian court ruled that it was illegal for Japanese boats to hunt whales within 200 nautical miles of Australia’s Antarctic land claim.
Perhaps it is time that other nations defend their own Antarctic claims. This would no doubt put the agreement in jeopardy, but rather than bowing down to an international body that has failed in its stated mission, individual states could negotiate their own regulatory and licensing agreements for fisheries. For example, New Zealand would be within its right to unilaterally establish a much-needed marine protected area in the Ross Sea. The Chileans and the Argentines, whose claims overlap along a peninsula south of the Falkland Islands, could hash out their own deals. Norway might well fish its own waters to depletion, but that would be the price of environmental gains elsewhere.
Most conservationists and fans of international law would be horrified by the idea of ditching the Antarctic Treaty. But consider this: the Spitsbergen Convention did not survive — since 1920 the island has effectively become part of Norway. Yet Norway, which has dug in its heels at nearly every meeting of the Antarctic conservation commission, has shown far more concern over an island it considers its own. It has established environmental protections at Spitsbergen, shut hazardous mining operations and reined in Russian fishing trawlers. It’s not a perfect system, but it might be a better one for Antarctica than the toothless treaty that many will be celebrating Tuesday.