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What Did We Learn? Subantarctics vs Antarctica

When we set sail for Our Far South we expected to find that Antarctica was a ‘lawless land’ and that our own subantarctics, being part of New Zealand, were fairly well managed. In many ways, the reality was exactly the opposite.

It is true that the governance of Antarctica is far from perfect. It is managed by consensus amongst some 28 nations which are dubbed “Consultative Parties” under the Antarctic Treaty System. Most of these countries are also involved in CCAMLR, the organisation that manages the marine resources around Antarctica. Managing anything by consensus isn’t easy, and some problems do occur. A good example is the ‘Olympic Fishery’ for toothfish in the Ross Sea; while the toothfish stock itself is well managed the countries can’t agree a rational way of doing the fishing, which has led to some accidents. Also not all countries play ball by international treaties, as we see when dealing with the tricky legalities of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing.

Yet given these limitations, the nations involved in Antarctica have achieved a huge amount in the area of environmental protection. The Environmental Protocol completely bans mining or drilling for minerals and hydrocarbons in the Treaty area. Thanks to all the basic science that happens there we know an incredible amount about Antarctica; its climate and ecosystems. Toothfish and krill are the most cautiously managed fisheries in the world. And although it is early days, a tremendous effort has already gone into creating marine protected areas. When these achievements are contrasted with what New Zealand has put in place in its own Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), we come up significantly short. Let’s look at each of these issues in turn.

As mentioned mining or drilling for minerals is completely banned in Antarctic. This is in stark contrast to the extensive prospecting for minerals and hydrocarbons occurring in our EEZ. Meanwhile the Government are yet to put in place the environmental protection measures necessary to safeguard our EEZ from the sort of mishaps that happened recently in the Gulf of Mexico. Legislation on this issue is before Parliament right now, but it is not entirely clear that the proposed safeguards will be sensitive to the different parts of our ocean or if it will be a one size fits all approach. Obviously there are significant differences in the risks of oil spills and ability to clean them up when drilling in the huge waves of the Southern Ocean. If there is a mishap then there would be no way to protect the precious wildlife of the area.

Antipodean Albatross - currently threatened by fishing

New Zealand fishers have been at the vanguard of creating a sustainable toothfish fishery in the Ross Sea, yet again things are not quite so rosy in our own waters. Toothfish are being fished down to a cautious target level of 50% of the original stock. Meanwhile in New Zealand most fish stocks are at 20-35% of their original levels. This may be better management than many countries, but it is far from the optimal situation for our environment. While the Ministry of Fisheries recently signalled it would aim to increase these levels closer to 40%, there is little sign of this happening. There are also big differences in the environmental impacts of fishing. For example the rate of seabird capture in the Ross Sea is very low, largely thanks to harsh penalties and a ban on discharging offal in the area (which attracts birds). While New Zealand fishers have improved their environmental impacts in recent years, they are still a long way behind this standard. As a result some species of seabird that only exist in New Zealand currently seem destined for extinction thanks to the nets, ropes and hooks of Kiwi fishing vessels.

New Zealand has also led a ground-breaking process for marine protection in Antarctica’s Ross Sea. This process has worked out a way to protect most of the important habitat with the smallest possible impact on the fishing happening in the area. This has been criticised by some environmental groups as being insufficient because it still allows some fishing. A total ban on fishing in the area is unlikely to go down well with other fishing nations. Given this is an international negotiation, if New Zealand’s approach is successful in gaining protection for anything like what we have proposed (which would protect 95% of the Ross Sea and 30-40% of the wider Ross Sea region) then it must be considered a major success. Contrast this with our own EEZ where around 0.3% is protected in marine reserves, and the process for developing new Marine Protected Areas has stalled. New Zealand needs to invest in a clear science based process for protecting the most important areas of its marine environment.

Finally, the gulf in research effort between Antarctica and the subantarctics is stark. The science conducted in Antarctica is partly justified on diplomatic terms, as it is a way to maintain our claim over the Ross Dependency and ensure our relevance in Antarctic diplomatic circles. However this effort shows up our lack of understanding of the precious subantarctic islands. New Zealand is responsible for many iconic and rare species, many of which are endangered and/or declining. Our role as custodian of this area requires that we monitor these species, try to work out why they are declining and if possible reverse the trend. Anything less is negligent.

There is no good reason to explain this gap in environmental protection between Antarctica and the subantarctics. Remember that New Zealand has complete control over its own EEZ, while in Antarctica everything is decided by consensus. For some reason New Zealand works a lot harder on environmental protection in Antarctica than it does in its own backyard. This is a bizarre result – completely the opposite of what we expected to find from the voyage. Why we do this is difficult to tell – perhaps we are ‘keeping up appearances’ of our clean green image to disguise what actually exists in reality. This indicates a greater commitment to our international image than the environment. The message is clear, it is time that our leadership on environmental protection of the White Continent is translated into action within our own EEZ.

2 Responses to “What Did We Learn? Subantarctics vs Antarctica”
  1. Catherine says:

    Brilliant Geoff. Great update – huge thanks!

  2. David Young says:

    This considered piece, in my opinion, is right on the money. As a people, as governments, New Zealanders overall care more about how we are seen to be than about our real behaviour, particularly towards the environment. John Key’s stuttering performance last year on John Sackur’s Hard ‘Talk’ sum’s up all of that.
    It seems to follow, then, that if we seek strong, precautionary and sustainable policies, sadly, we need to expose the gap between rhetoric and reality to the world. Even within this country, I have found that bad behaviour by regional or unitary councils will go unchecked – but put it out to a wider public and a response is almost guaranteed.

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