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Antarctic treaty at 50

mcmurdo.jpgThe Smithsonian Institute is throwing a four-day party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty. The summit includes talks by leading Antarctic researchers like ozone hole pioneer Susan Solomon, US science czar John Holdren and Prince Albert II of Monaco, the most recent country to sign the treaty.

The treaty was signed in 1959 as countries bumped heads over how to divide the continent, turning Antarctica into a zone of peace and establishing it as the world’s largest conservation area. The treaty now has 47 signatories and is often viewed as shining example of international collaboration.

But a lot can happen in 50 years, including global warming, eco-tourism and worldwide craving for oil and fish, and the treaty system is trying to make sure scientific research and other activities are aligned with environmental issues on the tundra. The original treaty made hardly any mention of the environment.

To deal with these modern problems, the signatories agreed to establish the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which went into force in 1982. Then in 1991 a new environmental agreement was signed, which prohibited any mining indefinitely and established the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) to advise the treaty members on environmental issues.

On 1 December, CCAMLR secretariat Denzil Miller spoke of some of the organization’s success stories, such as the recent establishment of Antarctica’s first Marine Protected Area — though at 36,000 square miles the region is a sliver of what was originally proposed. He also noted that they still have a ways to go to restore depleted fish populations, including Antarctic cod. Nevertheless, Miller defended CCAMLR’s strategies, asserting that “the best scientific evidence is taken into account in setting up the management regime”, and that there is little political interference.

CEP, now a decade old, seems to be facing even tougher challenges — the committee has more on its plate so the link to science is less direct. Former CEP chair Olav Orheim talked about the difficulties of dealing with changes in the Antarctic environment, including melting temperatures, invasive species and burgeoning numbers of both scientists and tourists. As Antarctica becomes less isolated from the world, CEP needs the resources to keep better tabs on everything that’s going on if it’s going to continue to play an advisory role, Orheim says.

CEP also suffers from entanglement between political and scientific issues, Orheim and Miller say. “CEP still has a way to go there,” said Orheim.

Jan Huber, former executive secretary of the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat, thinks the regulators could bulk up a bit. He called for a stronger partnership with NGOs and commercial stakeholders in Antarctica to help implement regulations.

More Coverage:

A Treaty on Ice – Nature reporter Brendan Borrell in the NYTimes

Image: Flickr/elisfanclub


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