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Accidents highlight risks for Antarctic fishery

Environmental campaigners are again calling for a clampdown on fishing in one of the world’s most remote and untouched oceans after two ships suffered serious accidents in the icy waters. The accidents — in which a number of crew are believed to have died — carry a pollution risk as well as raising questions over whether any fishing should be allowed in the Ross Sea, near Antarctica.

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) says that the incidents show that controversial attempts to exploit toothfish found in the sea are leading vessels into danger and threatening the environment.

“This is one of the last places on Earth where we have this pristine environment,” says James Barnes, executive director of the coalition, whose members include Greenpeace, the WWF and the Pew Group. “It’s not going to be pristine for long.”

At the end of last year, the fishing vessel Sparta was holed by ice in the Ross Sea and had to be assisted by a Korean icebreaker before it could limp into port. This January another fishing boat in the sea — the Jeong Woo 2 — caught fire, and its crew had to be rescued by vessels including a US research ship. Reports suggest the Jeong Woo 2 is still ablaze and the BBC says three crew members died in the accident.

Barnes says that the Sparta was carrying 180 tonnes of light fuel oil; it is unknown how much fuel is on the Jeong Woo 2, and “there is always worry that it can do serious damage” if it leaks into the ocean. And although the Sparta and its fuel made it to New Zealand, the fate of the Jeong Woo 2’s fuel is still unclear.

ASOC is opposed to all fishing in the Ross Sea, and the toothfish fishery itself is controversial, with a number of scientists disagreeing with its ‘sustainable billing’ (see ‘Sustainable’ fishing row takes new turn).

Barnes says the fact that the toothfish fishery is run on an ‘Olympic’ principle, with vessels competing to catch as many fish as they can until the total quota is met, encourages captains to push their craft into areas “where no sane people would go”.

Gareth Hughes, New Zealand’s Green Party spokesperson for oceans, has also called for fishing in the Ross Sea to cease.

“In little over a year three fishing vessels — the Jeong Woo 2, along with the Sparta and Number 1 In Sung which sank with 22 lives lost — have come to grief in the Ross Sea,” he said in a statement. “This pristine environment must not be put at risk by old, single-hulled unsuitable fishing boats like these, that race to catch as much as they can despite the weather in the ‘Olympic’-style fishery.”


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