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Sunday, January 24, 1999 Published at 21:39 GMT


Protecting Antarctica's future

Antarctica: Facing increasing pressure

The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley, has warned about the dangers to Antarctica from illegal exploitation of its resources.

Her country has called a conference of more than 20 nations to discuss ways of protecting the continent. The get-together is being held on Antarctica itself, starting on Monday, and will last three days.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley: Negotiation is the only way forward
The last, great, unspoilt region on Earth needed to be managed properly, she said - poachers knew the treasures of the Antarctic and must not be allowed to "rape" the region.

The Prime Minister said the so-called "Ministerial on Ice" would focus the world's attention on the continent's problems.

"We think that it is an area the world needs to know a lot more about," she told the BBC.

"While there are treaties that exist there, we feel that until people see, through the images of the media the importance of it ... you don't sense the passion of keeping this zone very carefully managed."

Treaty protection

Last year, the Antarctic Treaty gained new life with the ratification of an environmental protocol. This bans mining for 50 years, puts strict limits on pollution and waste disposal, and spells out measures to protect wildlife.

[ image: Sir Ranulph Fiennes:  Tourism brings pollution]
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Tourism brings pollution
It designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science. Greenpeace described the ratification as "a major victory" and a milestone for global protection. But the strains on Antarctica are real and growing.

In 1998, it received about 10,000 tourists. The great explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who has tried to walk across the continent, said that any more tourists would increase pollution.

Explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Overfishing and tourism could destroy the continent
"If you allow lots of tourists in there without any form of blocks or controls this pollution might start creeping in," he said.

"It much better to prevent too much tourism that to try to cure it afterwards."

Illegal fishing

Of more pressing concern, however, is the issue of how to protect fish stocks. Australia's Environment Minister, Robert Hill, said he will urge the meeting to crack down on illegal catches.

Michael Meacher explains what he hopes the Antarctic meeting will achieve
He wants an effective scheme for certifying catches, with satellites used to monitor vessels. He also blamed illegal fishing for killing thousands of seabirds, including the endangered albatross.

The birds are at risk from "long line" vessels, which set lines up to 100 km in length, with up to 20,000 baited hooks. Birds which take the hooks in their mouths are pulled under water and drowned.

Greenpeace estimates that 100,000 seabirds die annually in this way. It has asked British supermarkets which stock the main species concerned, the Antarctic sea bass, to stop buying it.

Antarctic explorers

The UK Environement Minister Michael Meacher said he is keen to address all these issues.

[ image: Shackleton's ship 'Endurance': the past recalled]
Shackleton's ship 'Endurance': the past recalled
"The purpose is to acquaint ministers with the reality and the needs of Antarctica, and to get a higher profile for a continent that is so little understood," he said.

The ministers will stay at New Zealand's Scott base and the nearby US McMurdo station. They will see the way Antarctica has been affected by environmental change, from ozone depletion to global warming.

Dr David Walton of the British Antarctic survey: Tourism is not all bad
Mr Meacher will also return to the organisers items of equipment used by the explorers Scott and Shackleton during their Antarctic expeditions early this century.

They include leather sledging traces, a cigarette tin, and a candle lantern. All had belonged to a New Zealander who donated them to the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge for return to Antarctica.

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Internet Links

The Antarctic Treaty (Summary)

Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

Scott Polar Research Institute

British Antarctic Survey

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