Antarctica is the world’s last great wilderness and provides a pristine area for research into the Antarctic and the global environment. The challenge is to manage human activities in Antarctica in a way that balances the benefits of access with the need for environmental protection. A range of Antarctic resources are potentially of use to people including:
General requirements for any type of human activity in Antarctica, such as prior environmental impact assessment and avoiding harmful disturbance to wildlife are set out in the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. This international agreement also bans mining in Antarctica indefinitely. Southern Ocean resources are managed through the Convention for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
In the 1970s concerns were raised about the economic potential of Antarctica, and the environmental impacts which its exploitation could cause. Between 1981 and 1988 the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties developed a Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities (CRAMRA) with environmental management measures to minimise the potential impact of mining. In 1989, however, Australia and France declined to sign the convention on the basis that no mining should ever take place in Antarctica. While CRAMRA was never ratified, it laid the groundwork for the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. This agreement, signed in 1991 and in force internationally in 1998, places an indefinite ban on all mineral activities except for approved scientific research. It also sets out environmental protection requirements for all types of activities in Antarctica.
A layer of ice up to three kilometres thick covers the Antarctic continent which in size is as big as the United States and Mexico combined. Antarctic ice contains 70% of the world's fresh water (90% of the world's ice). It has been suggested that Antarctic icebergs could be transported and used as a source of fresh water for dry regions of the world. At the 11th Special Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting the Parties agreed that if harvesting of ice took place it would not be considered as a mineral resource activity (banned under the Protocol on Environmental Protection), but would be subject to the normal requirements of the Protocol, such as prior environmental impact assessment.
The Southern Ocean is very productive; some 8200 marine species are thought to live in it ranging from micro-organisms, plants and fish to seals, whales, penguins and flying birds. Many are not found anywhere else.
Fishing does take place in Antarctica. It is regulated through the Convention on the Conservation of Marine Living Resources, signed in 1981. This agreement puts in place an international permitting system for fisheries based on a 'precautionary' and 'ecosystem based' approach. Catch limits are set based on information about both catch species stocks and possible impacts on non-target species.
The Convention covers all types of marine organisms except for whales and seals. Whaling is managed by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling signed in 1946. Antarctic sealing, should it recommence, could be managed under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals of 1972, which 16 of the Antarctic Treaty Parties have ratified. New Zealand has not ratified the agreement due to opposition to commercial sealing.
Bioprospecting is the search for commercially valuable and exploitable organisms or substances. Antarctica is of interest to bioprospectors because it contains organisms that have adapted to the cold climate. For instance, the molecule which allows fish to survive sub zero waters by producing their own 'anti-freeze' has been patented and could be used commercially to keep ice cream soft.
Bioprospecting usually involves the collection of only small quantities of materials and organisms for research purposes, and the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty contains measures to address the environmental impacts of any activities in Antarctica. However, the Antarctic Treaty Parties are concerned about other issues surrounding bioprospecting, such as:
Consistency with Article III of the Antarctic Treaty, which requires free exchange of scientific results;
Relationship of the Antarctic Treaty System to international agreements relating to bioprospecting;
Sharing of benefits.
Tourism to Antarctica began by ship and air in the 1950s. Visitor numbers have increased rapidly over the last few decades. In the 2008/09 season nearly 38 000 tourists visited Antarctica, compared with just under 8000 15 years ago. Fewer than 5% of these tourists visit the Ross Sea region of Antarctica, where New Zealand's national programme activity is focussed. The majority of tours are to the Antarctic Peninsula region, close to South America.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) was established in 1991 to promote safety and environmental responsibility amongst cruise operators. IAATO drafted the documents which formed the basis of “Guidance for Visitors to the Antarctic”, Antarctic Treaty Recommendation XVIII-I.
Tourism is specifically noted in the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty as one of the activities it covers. The Protocol includes environmental principles as well as practical requirements on matters such as environmental impact assessment, conservation of flora and fauna, waste management and prevention of marine pollution.
Management of tourism activities remains an important issue in the Antarctic Treaty forum and the Treaty Parties held a special Meeting of Experts in Norway, in March 2004, to discuss topics including safety and environmental protection.