Page last updated at 01:26 GMT, Monday, 31 March 2008 02:26 UK

Why the white wilderness needs our care

James Barnes
James Barnes

The number of ships visiting the Antarctic is growing; and that brings an increasing risk of accidents that could pollute the coastline and the Southern Ocean. In the Green Room this week, James Barnes says that governments must act now to protect the White Continent.

Emperor penguins. Image: BBC
Emperor penguins are among wildlife depending on a clean shoreline

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean constitute the planet's last great wilderness; yet even that far-away region is becoming increasingly overcrowded.

There are fishing boats, both legal and illegal, including a new breed that vacuum krill from the sea.

There are commercial tourism operations, research ships, private yachts, whaling fleets, and supply vessels.

In the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), we are concerned that the increasing number and size of vessels - which operate in many respects outside effective regulation - coupled with the lack of appropriate requirements for ice-strengthening or a prohibition on using heavy-grade fuel oils, leaves the region open to significant risks.

The M/S Explorer was a wake-up call; there could have been a tragedy, and next time we won't be as lucky

I am sure that general awareness of risks from shipping to the Antarctic and its wildlife has been heightened by recent accidents in the region.

Most prominent was the quick sinking of the M/S Explorer in late November 2007, a well-known commercial tourism vessel that was purpose-built for the Antarctic several decades ago.

Fortunately, everyone on board was rescued, and just minor pollution resulted from the light diesel fuel it carried.

But that accident is a wake-up call - had it not occurred in perfect weather conditions, with other vessels close by to rescue the passengers and crew, there could have been a tragedy.

Next time we won't be as lucky.

Weak regulations

A number of other recent incidents in the Southern Ocean have resulted in pollution or in vessels adrift and out of control:

  • the M/V Lyubov Orlova ran aground at Deception Island in the South Shetlands in November 2006 and needed assistance to be re-floated
  • the M/V Nordkapp, another commercial tourism vessel, grounded at Deception Island in January 2007 spilling marine diesel
  • the M/S Fram lost power on 30 December 2007 along the Antarctic Peninsula and drifted into an iceberg
  • the trawler Argos Georgia was adrift for 15 days in ice after losing power while fishing in the Ross Sea off Antarctica's northern coast on 23 December last year
  • in early 2007, an explosion and fire on the Nisshin Maru, the Japanese whale processing ship, resulted in one death and loss of power for several days under dangerous conditions in sensitive waters

The fact that certain types of vessels, many of them not ice-strengthened, are concentrated at certain times of the year and in relatively few areas puts at risk the lives of crews and passengers as well as the wildlife and environment of the Antarctic.

M/S Explorer. Image: AP
The sinking of the M/S Explorer in November highlighted the issue

But it isn't only the increased risk of shipping accidents that worries us. The International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN body responsible for regulating shipping internationally, designated the Southern Ocean as a "special area", banning the disposal at sea or on shore of oily residues, chemicals and rubbish from ships - a good first step.

All these wastes should be kept on board by vessels operating in the Southern Ocean and disposed of when they return to their port of origin.

However, ships don't only generate these wastes, but also sewage and grey water (particularly on the larger cruise ships), as well as sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide from the burning of fuel oil, and toxic chemicals from the paints used on their hulls to prevent bio-fouling.

Some vessels carry invasive or alien species on their hulls or in their ballast tanks.

The whaling fleet dumps large quantities of waste in the Southern Ocean every year, and re-fuels within the Antarctic Treaty area with a vessel registered under a Panamanian flag.

Overall, these sources of pollution remain inadequately regulated by the IMO, the International Whaling Commission or the Antarctic Treaty System. These organisations need to work together effectively.

Holes in the ship

Since it began in 1978, ASOC and its member groups have convinced governments to step up protection for the Antarctic in a number of areas.

We persuaded governments:

  • to negotiate the world's first "ecosystem as a whole" fisheries management regime in 1982, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)
  • to reject a proposed minerals convention in 1989
  • and to agree on a far-reaching Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty in 1991, which banned all minerals activities indefinitely and created the essence of a World Park regime for the 10% of the Earth encompassed by the Southern Ocean and the continent.

However, the Protocol and CCAMLR, while salutary in many respects, leave significant legal and practical gaps.

There is no liability regime covering all vessels operating in the region, for example, nor an overall registry of "Antarctic" vessels that would allow their characteristics to be known and compliance with regulations to be enforced.

Unless these vital steps are taken, accidents more serious than the ones we have seen so far must inevitably happen

There are no ice-strengthening standards for Antarctic vessels of various classes and varying uses, and thus far, no regulation of types of fuel used.

This year, we are launching a new initiative to protect the Southern Ocean from the impacts of vessels operating in the region.

As the IMO's Marine Environmental Protection Committee begins a week-long meeting in London, we are calling on its 167 members to take the vital steps necessary to prevent major marine disasters in the Antarctic and to protect Antarctica's sensitive and increasingly vulnerable marine and coastal environments.

We are asking them to:

  • ban the use of heavy grade fuel oils on all vessels in Antarctic waters
  • require appropriate ice-strengthening standards for all Antarctic vessels, whether for fishing, whaling, research, tourism or supply
  • place further restrictions on the discharge of both untreated and treated sewage and grey water in the Southern Ocean
  • commit to the introduction of a system of vessel traffic monitoring and information for the Antarctic, which includes information on the vessels' relevant characteristics
  • undertake a comprehensive assessment of the threats to the Antarctic environment and to safety of life at sea, and come up with adequate ways of combating them.

Common future

No one owns Antarctica, although a few countries persist in maintaining their frozen claims to slices of the continent.

In reality, the international community is responsible for the region, operating through the Antarctic Treaty and its related agreements, and through the IWC and the IMO.

Antarctic mountains. Image: BBC
Antarctica is in one sense a continent without national owners

ASOC is calling on all the governments party to these treaties to begin working in concert to ensure the highest standards for vessels operating in the region, to limit access by vessels which lack appropriate equipment, to set clear protection standards for sewage and ballast water, and to take the actions needed over the longer term to protect the Antarctic environment and avoid needless loss of human life.

Unless these vital steps are taken, accidents more serious than the ones we have seen so far must inevitably happen.

When they do, the last great wilderness will become a little less wild, and a little less special.

James Barnes is an international environmental lawyer who has spent 35 years working on environmental treaties. He is currently executive director of ASOC

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with James Barnes? Does Antarctica need more protection? Or is greater benefit gained from allowing tourists to visit the continent as easily as possible? Whose responsibility should it be to look after Antarctica and its waters and wildlife?

I ask you this, if you were offered an all expenses paid trip to Antarctica, as I was, would you take it? I suspect you would if you are at all interested in nature, travel, wildlife etc. If your response is no, you are either fearful of leopard seals or you are being dishonest with yourself. Or, perhaps, you are that very rare person who is actually able to separate personal interests from global issues (Have you been in a car lately?). However, even if you are that rare person, rare means there are a substantial number of people, including myself, who would gladly take your place. Economically speaking, this means there is a substantial demand to visit Antarctica. Furthermore, unless you are that rare person, you are responsible for the demand, and the demand is not going away anytime soon. Therefore, restricting or limiting access to research or government activities, as some have suggested, will do very little to detour the exploitation of Antarctica. So if restricting visits won't work, what is will? Minimize the environmental impact of the visits to Antarctica by removing the economic incentive to disregard environmental standards and regulations. Reducing the environmental impact of a visit by 50% is equally as effective as reducing the number of visits by 50%. Regulations do work if they are accompanied by consumer awareness. I am referring to awareness of the practices of companies that use Antarctica for business. Let me rephrase my previous question, if you were offered an all expenses paid trip to Antarctica with a company that you (and all your friends) knew had a record of very poor environmental practices. Would you go? I suspect your answer would be no (unfortunately there are still some that would, but not many). The point here is that your awareness of the substandard practices of the company has remov! ed the demand for their services. Treaties and organizations who have a mission to protect Antarctica and the Southern Ocean should leverage the demand of consumers to make companies compete to operate with the most environmentally sustainable practices. They could do this by implementing ARCTIC AND ANTARCTIC EVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE CERTIFICATION PROGRAMS that provide a platform for awareness among consumers about which specific companies meet a certain set of standards and perhaps those that meet even higher standards.
Ryan Moore, Melbourne, Australia

As long as power & money rule our lives the planet will never stand a chance! After all, we're already planning on contaminating Europa, so what chance does Antarctica have? Isn't it ironic that the only organism on the planet to have it right (phytoplankton) is the basis for the whole ocean ecosystem? Not that I'm not hoping/wishing that we'll evolve a little more in time to save "Eden", sadly, history has proven that the only thing we learn from history is that we refuse to learn from history!
Wm, Canada

While protecting the White Continentis is a laudable project, it is just not feasible as long as no one can claim ownership of this territory. The whole movement is flawed from the start becauuse of the structures of the various organisation that had been set up to protect this territory. |Without ownership, there is no responsibililty nor accountability. The first solution is to really determine which country ( or countries) has a right to this territory. Secondly, as far as the citizens of those countries who are distanced from this territory, a complete lack of interest in its fate is not surprising as they may never have been to this territory nor would ever expect to go there in the near future. They have more urgent local issues to contend with than the pollution of the White continent. Be pragmatic.
Colin Meyer, Singapore

I have no scientific background. Only an instinct. One that sees tourism in the Antarctic environment as ludicrous. It is a last bastion of wildlife. The Poles are crying out from human desire to "reign supreme". I'm not even sure I understand the need for the scientific research that goes on at the top and bottom of the planet, yet I surely do not see the need to go see the show. Let us wish Mr. Barnes well in his endeavor for humans to steer clear!
Denise, Chicago, IL ... USA

An excellent article with many equally excellent comments.At least everyone seems to agree on dissenters so far! You ask the question "Would greater benefit be, etc. etc." I ask "Benefit to who?" Certainly not to the Antarctic nor the wildlife that inhabits it and have done since time immemorial. Regrettably wherever there is money to be made someone will want to make it, be it oil or minerals or fish from the sea or tourism or whatever. Wherever man has gone, pollution has followed. There wouldn't be "tourist ships" without tourists! Fishermen wouldn't exist and need to explore further and further without more and more hungry mouths to feed! If our lifestyle didn't demand more and more "goodies" which required more and more energy to provide, oil and mineral exploration wouldn't be interested in searching in such remote locations! So who is going to "protect" the Antarctic since we are all in some way or other guilty of polluting this planet. Whoever identified the human species as "homo sapiens" had a cruel sense of humour!
Mike "grumpy old man" Perkins, Whangarei, New Zealand

I think a key preliminary step that we must take as a global society, is to change thinking that says that living on our planet is about us as individuals. It is much like you are taught in Boy Scouts here in the U.S.: leave your campsite exactly how you found it. Similarly, as human beings, we must be less selfish and learn to leave our world exactly how we found it. Granted this statement does not accomplish anything by itself. But it is this change in mindset that will enable our society to move forward and pay closer attention to not just a local election or how much taxes we pay but how our actions affect our global neighbors and our children's future.
Nitin Tekchandani, Portland, Oregon, United States

Since no individual or government "owns" Antarctica, is it possible to deed it to the creatures who have managed to survive in the environment for milllenia? What might the collective wisdom of these beings tell us? Do any of us have ears to hear??
Lynn Gifford, Dubuque, Iowa US

Does anyone really care? We talk about protecting the planet but what does that mean? Governments are more interested in protecting what share holders make. The bottom line is profits. As long as we continue to think that profits are more important than our future, the condition of this planet will get so bad it will be too late to save it. Don't get me wrong. I do agree with Mr. Barnes but I don't think the governments of the world are really interested in doing something about the present perils of this beautiful planet as long as their profit margins continue to increase. They do not think about the future, just about today and and tomorrow. Their vision is very narrow. It's a shame. What will we leave behind for the future generations? Peace!
Luis Nieves, Queens, New York, USA

Certainly, sensitive ecosystems like the Antartica do need protective and preventive measures which will help preserve the region and shield it from the ill effects that are caused by unchecked human exploitation. Also free and unchecked access to the region by the tourism industry must not be allowed. Tourism must be developed and promoted in a very careful, gradual, and sustainable manner and only after comprehensive impact and feasablity studies are carried out (I do not know if there have been any, particular to tourism development). I would think that these issues have come up because of the lack of ownership. We as a people tend to have less regard for what is not our own. If a body, institution, or nation owns it, realises the potential risk from damage, and believes it would be profitable to protect the region and is able to do so, then it would. But then again motivation and ability are issues which might not allow stringent protection, for example if the cost of protection is too high and is not seen as profitable or if the resources for protection are not available. Thus cooperation and action by various agencies (those claiming to be the owners, the IMO, the ASOC, and concerned people around the world) is vital. Also spreading awareness and helping create opinion is very important. Responsible journalism is a powerful tool, cheers to the Green room - BBC. LETS WAKE UP, PULL UP OUR SOCKS AND PROTECT & PRESERVE OUR WORLD.
Anand Kothari, Manchester, UK

It saddens me to think that despite the best efforts of many great and caring people like James Barnes... one day when the resources of the other four continents are all but depleted and the invevitable global warming gets into full swing and a thawing Antarctica becomes economically viable as a source of mineral wealth. We shall one day see man plundering this most beautiful of continents.
Alan Evans, England

As you decrease the number of wilderness areas in the world each remaining wilderness area becomes increasingly valuable, and at this point with Antarctica as the last remaining true wilderness (and it appears that there is a consensus on this point based on reading the comments) it's value becomes inestimably great. The only question remaining is whether or not this wilderness area could be lost without increased regulation, but this article clearly shows the current level of regulation poses significant risks to the continent. The solution may not be to designate it as a UN protectorate necessarily as others have proposed, but it's indisputable that increased levels of protection are required, if only slight increases to prevent the potential dangers from shipping and tourism outlined in this article.
Bogdan Petre, Chicago, United States

The best way to protect anywhere is to keep out; but we won't.
gerry, exeter england

Is green tourism possible? Is it possible for humans to visit natural places and leaving them 'natural'? I think not: if you want to save the planet just leave it alone! Man only creates deserts and wastelands, wherever he goes.
Dennis Cini, Zebbug, Gozo, Malta

Oil spills have occured in remote areas before....not that I am all for encouraging more shipping routes through Antarctic waters. But I think it's worth noting that Antarctica might be a long way from Britain, but it is quite close to Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. Australia has a permanent population there and has done for decades. Under a revised treaty their responsibilities to respond to these kinds of issues could be enforced. I'm sure Aust and NZ would respond quite quickly at the moment anyway. A revised treaty might force the development of a more coordinated and effective response plan though.
Des, Australian in London

Common sense dictates that no visit to one of the world's most remote and potentially inhospitable destinations can be without an element of risk. That said, when I visited the Antarctic Peninsula in 2007 the calibre, experience, performance and professionalism of the bridge and expedition teams on our relatively small cruise ship, were impressive. The phrase "compelling Antarctic purpose" for visitors seems appropriate. What is not clear is how to support visits by those genuinely interested in the scenery, wildlife and splendid isolation and how to discourage tick-box cruisers whose motivation is 'been there, done that'. In my experience, this group is at present a minority. To have set foot on the Antarctic continent is a rare privilege. By all means regulate access, but by regulation do not make it inaccessible.
Phil Rix, Dunstable / United Kingdom

someday,we may all learn that what affects one area will ultimately affect everyone. i support james barnes position on controls to visitors to the anarctic
glenn m barnes, louisville,ky usa

Greed and population explosion together create a "recipe for disaster" and polluting and disrespecting the inhabitants of Antartica is definitely creating "a disaster waiting to happen". I, as an American, am embarassed that my country has shown so little concern for the fragility and the importance of Antartica. We need to get our priorities in step with the times and hopefully a major change in who we send to Washington D.C. will result in our making a contribution to save this planet.
Bonnie, Columbia, Missouri USA

I'm not sure about shipping routes but I can't imagine the devastation that a chemical or oil spill would cause in the Southern Oceans because there simply isn't any local population to clean it up.
Thomas, London UK

Sounds like Antarctica would benefit from a revised treaty where countries who have made claims have strict responsibilities over their areas under a holistic management plan. They could then be held accountable to these under the treaty. Otherwise it remains a free for all, with no accountability should a disaster occur. But doesn't this mean that these claims to territories need to be respected? Most are legitimate. Perhaps the real problem is that without recognizing and respecting these claims to territories internationally, it makes it easy for those countries involved to avoid some responsibility, or, more likely, doesn't provide an effective framework for collaboration and integrated management of the entire area. Recognizing these claims more formally and then operating under a revised treaty with an integrated management approach seems the only way forward. Banning people from the place won't do anything.
Des, Australian in London

The best way to protect the Antartic both land and sea, would to do something unheard of before that is to make it a United Nations protectorate, giving it nation-like protection with a abosulte right that no humans inhabit the land or sea mass for anything other than scientific purposes. I don't think any national park like status would keep the mineral hungry nations at bay! Antartic must be given national like boundaries and protection that most nations take for granted.
James, Sanday, Orkney, SANDAY

Yes the continent needs protection, but pratical issues of regulation of both commercial and unchartered excersions to the continent is the real problems. Also, there are ownership issues with who actually is responsible for the continent and waters. This poses problems in regulation, pollution, ergency services (rescues), and future management. The problem also lies with the scale of the content - with limited knowledge of quantifying the natural resources such as the krill and fish populations. Attempts have been made by sonar to quantify the krill populations, even though they are mainly distributed in the Antarctic Surface Water and extend in the Shelf Water krill (CCAMLR). Little is know about the interaction of the changing shelf water and the fluctuating krill populations.
Ruth, Oxon, UK

I travelled to Antarctica in 2001 with a company that has long since gone. The boat carried over 120 passengers. At that time i think only one other company ran trips from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula. A lot of the people on the boat where treating it as a holiday to compare with the neighbours rather than going there to see the beauty and undisturbed nature. The staff on the board made sure that nothing untoward happened, and walking on any grass there was not allowed. I would not want to stop people from going there, but i think there should be a limit on the number of boats per year and control on the companies that operate there. If only all humans treated these places as nature place rather than ours to destroy.
Peter Grove, Edinburgh, Scoltland

More responsibilty from governments is definately needed! More sanctions, regulations and formal checks are often a good way to get started. The truth is, this planet is already suffering the consequences of having humans reign as the superiour species. There is one section of this earth who does not have to suffer the ill-treatment of our kind. It would not need our protection if we did not try and harm it in the first place. James Barnes is right, governments do need to step in to protect this area, and even further the UN and other NGO's should participate in this project as well. Where is Greenpeace when you need it!
Shannon Weatherhead, Ottawa, Canada

Having had the privelege to visit the Arctic and Antarctic with extremely conciensious small and specilised ships I could not agree more. Unless even more strict rules are applied to anyone and everyone who goes to those parts of the world for whatever reason, our last precious wild places will be lost forever plus all the creatures which live there. Laws MUST be strengthened NOW.
Juliet Simpson, London. England

I wish you success in getting better protections for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Wildlife so confined to the coast and to the sea depends on a clean environment even more so in such cold conditions where life is in such fine balance for survival. After having read accounts of what the Southern Ocean was like when Shackleton rescued his crew and for competitors sailing solo in the Vendee Globe around the Antarctica and back to France I wouldn't imagine many visitors to the continent would complain about requiring upgrades in seaworthiness for ships in the area.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA

I agree that this fragile environment needs all the protection it can get from commercial exploitation, uncontrolled tourism and bogus research - and expansion of existing research. Urgent action is essential in order to limit the inevitable interest that emergent economies will soon show in this (almost) pristine wilderness.
Peter Borrows, Marlow, UK

If we can't get nations to agree on whale hunting we aren't going to get agreement on the Antarctic. With the exploding population growth, water poverty and diminishing resources we will have governments and the UN talk around the issue for a few decades until it is to late. What can I say its Monday morning!!
A Green, York, UK

It is unfortunte that countries like Russia,UK, Canada... has started to paint on the Ice. But since no claim exists, antartic is belongs to the entire human-being.
SAGY, Jeddah

The responsibility lies in the hands of UN (IMO) and the ASOC...i completely agree with james Barnes. The Green Room rocks.
Yash Jethani, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India

It's good to hear news of people working on behalf of our planet's last true wilderness. Antarctica needs all the help it can get to protect it from all forms of exploitation be it whaling, tourism or prospecting for oil and gas. One only has to look else where in the world to see what effects these activities have on the environment. More power to your elbow Mr Barnes and I wish you every success.
Andy Henderson, Fakenham, Norfolk

"Why the white wilderness needs our care" It needs us like a hole in the head. If we want to look after it we should leave it well alone.
Mark Kilby, UK

Yes the Arctic and Antarctic both need protection. these environments are some of the most fragile in the world. If we don't act now we as a global community will face larger problems.
Thomas Dews, Beverley, East Yorkshire

It certainly sounds like it could do with more to me. The obvious desire of those in power to appropriate every bit of the world's surface to themselves, usually because of population pressures or the desire for access to its minerals point to an obvious fate for this area otherwise. Does it not know the human heart good to know that some parts of this beautiful planet don't have Size 10 human feet all over it?
Stephen Watson,

as with all environmental issues, there is one clear and common solution. it is much simpler and more effective than all the other options: cap, then gradually reduce the exploding human population. simple. with that, this and essentially all other environmental crisis will fade completely away. will it be done? never. how many children do i have? zero. and you?
kristian, hoffman estates, IL, USA

I think humans must realise what they have done, and what will be the consequences of what they have done. Therefore, please leave the nature be fresh.
Bormy CHANTHONG, Cambodia

Yes stringent protection, a three hundred mile exclusion zone around the continent. No fishing, no whaling in the seas and definately no oil or mineral exploitation on all Antartic territory by all nations. A lot of it is doomed already, another example of material greed.
A Hewitt, Marsden, Australia

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