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Black on white: environmental protection for the Antarctic

By Julia Jabour-Green - posted Saturday, 15 December 2001

Recent discussion about iron fertilisation experiments in the Southern Ocean has given Antarctic law and policy makers a new perspective on future uses of the Antarctic. The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering's 2001 symposium in Hobart on 20-21 November learned how recent trials in the Southern Ocean have found that iron fertilisation may speed up the natural process of carbon storage in the deep ocean. Under the right circumstances, when iron-deficient phytoplankton is fed added nutrient, it thrives and grows rapidly. Nature then steps in and draws down more atmospheric CO2 (also used by the plants in photosynthesis) to restore the chemical equilibrium of the ocean surface. In a sophisticated biological process these phytoplankton blooms feed fish predators, with synergetic effects all the way up the food chain, at the same time that some carbon is transported to and stored in the deep ocean.

There are two commercial possibilities being investigated as a result of this research. One is the potential to claim and trade 'carbon credits' for sequestered carbon, under the Framework Convention on Climate Change and its future emissions trading scheme. The other is to harvest the increased fish stocks resulting from the phytoplankton blooms.

An assessment of the legal and political implications of iron fertilisation discovered, however, that we are not well equipped to deal with this new, complex and contentious science. Because neither its efficacy as a carbon sequestration process nor its environmental consequences are yet well understood, it is likely that regulatory control will occur in tandem with scientific development. In the meantime, law and policy-makers have been given a timely reminder that despite the existence of some of the world's most comprehensive legal arrangements for protecting the Antarctic environment, new issues are emerging which challenge the scope of the current measures.


The risk is that, if commercial iron fertilisation is conducted on a much larger scale than it is now being conducted scientifically, there may be an unacceptable impact on marine living resources, thus it may fall foul of the comprehensive environmental law currently in place. The Antarctic Treaty's Protocol on Environmental Protection and the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) are just two of a range of international laws regulating human activities in the Antarctic and Southern Ocean. The Treaty, now 40 years old, ensures that the region remains a continent of peace and science. But the kind of behaviour sanctioned by the Treaty in the early days (the killing of wildlife as "indispensable food for men or dogs" for example) is no longer permitted. Instead, its 45 member countries now acknowledge environmental, historic, wilderness and aesthetic values as being as legitimate as those of peace and science. This has engendered a serious commitment to the conservation of native Antarctic plants, animals and overall ecosystems.

But survival may come at a price and the trade-off between scientific research and the pursuit of knowledge for the greater good may well be that a few animals are injured or killed in the process. With this in mind, researchers are encouraged to make informed decisions about the net value of their research. Balancing benefits and impacts will sometimes be difficult: the recent public outcry over the branding of Elephant Seal pups on Macquarie Island is a case in point. But there also exists a number of important restraining mechanisms which help to ensure that good decisions are made. For example, the research proposals of biologists intending to work on Antarctic fauna are filtered through animal ethics committee scrutiny, the environmental impact assessment procedures and the permit process. Taking or interfering with native plants and animals is prohibited. However, permits may be granted for specific reasons like scientific research. Issue of permits is strictly controlled so that no more specimens are taken than are absolutely necessary and that such behaviour will not jeopardise in any way the local population, species diversity or critical habitats. Significantly, the rules are that all living creatures must be handled in such a manner that the least degree of pain and suffering is experienced. Polluting or critically altering natural habitats is also prohibited and activities with this potential are closely assessed and monitored to ensure compliance with the highest possible standards and best environmental practice. Practices which cannot be positively evaluated will not proceed.

At some point in the future decisions will be made about commercial iron fertilisation of the Southern Ocean. Before then it will be necessary to comprehensively investigate and understand the possible long-term, cumulative or transboundary consequences of this action (for whatever commercial purpose it may be used) on the living resources and their marine environment, balanced alongside the net benefits. Full public disclosure about research goals, methods and outcomes, and the commercialisation of Antarctic science, will better equip the community to make informed judgments based on fact rather than emotion.

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This article is based on a paper to be presented to the annual symposium and Fellows' seminar of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, held 20-21 November in Hobart. Click here for more info.

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About the Author

Dr Julia Jabour-Green is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Antarctic & Southern Ocean Studies, University of Tasmania.

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Antarctic Cooperative Research Centre
Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
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