By Claire Christian
The Ross Sea in the Antarctic brings to mind visions of icebergs, penguins, seals and whales. Yet, increasingly, the Ross Sea – with its harsh environment of sub-zero temperatures and iceberg-riddled waters – is being visited by fishing vessels from around the world. Unfortunately, many of these vessels are not equipped for the harsh polar conditions, as evidenced by the two serious accidents in the last month, which follow another tragic accident in 2011 in which 21 people were killed.
The first accident involved the Sparta, a Russian-flagged vessel that was not ice-strengthened, hitting ice on December 18. The ice ripped a hole in the ship’s hull that caused her to take on water, and required the Royal New Zealand Air Force to drop repair supplies to the crew by plane. Rescue efforts were hampered by heavy sea ice, with help only coming seven days later by the South Korean icebreaker Araon. Fortunately, the entire crew survived the ordeal.
The second accident was more tragic. On January 11, 2012, the Korean fishing vessel Jeong Woo 2 experienced a fire on board. Three crew members died, and several others were injured. Other Korean fishing vessels nearby rescued most of the crew, and the U.S. research vessel Nathaniel B. Palmer took those needing medical treatment to McMurdo Station. All of the injured have now been airlifted to New Zealand, and three remain in serious condition.
While the Sparta incident appears to be a case of massively bad judgment, that is, taking a ship not designed for ice into an ice-heavy area, it’s too soon to know what caused the fire on the Jeong Woo 2. Nevertheless, these incidents echo last year’s sinking of the Korean fishing vessel Insung No. 1, in which 21 crew members died after a net hauler shutter was left open, allowing water to flow in when a wave hit the ship. The ship’s water pump was non-operational at the time, resulting in the capsizing of the ship.
Why have there been so many accidents in such a remote area of the ocean where there are few vessels of any kind? Certainly, the icy Southern Ocean is quite dangerous. But the incidents described above indicate it’s not just about Mother Nature – humans who visit the Ross Sea have failed to take standard safety precautions and maintain their vessels properly. One Russian official even expressed surprise that the Sparta had been approved to go to the Southern Ocean, since it has none of the features that ships visiting polar waters should have. The remoteness of the Antarctic further complicates matters, because incidents that might be survivable in warm waters where the weather is mild may not be in a place where the water is frigid and the weather violently unpredictable.
Why are all these vessels even going to a place with so many dangers? The answer is Chilean Sea Bass, or the Ross Sea toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni). It’s a valuable fish that sells for a high price, leading to an apparent willingness to take risks with safety and even with fishing regulations. Last year a Korean vessel in another part of the Southern Ocean knowingly exceeded the catch limit for the area by 339%. Even after being advised by authorities that the catch limit had been reached for the area, the vessel continued to fish. Toothfish are slow growing, which means it takes them a long time to recover from overfishing. And since they are a top predator, overfishing them could cause major disruptions to the rest of the food chain.
Overfishing and illegal fishing for valuable fish aren’t new problems, but these violations are surprising because they don’t involve rogue ships from countries that routinely defy international norms. Russia and Korea are both signatories to the treaty that governs fishing activities in the Southern Ocean, as well as active participants in Antarctic governance.
There is currently a process underway to designate large-scale marine reserves and marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean. Advocates say such areas are necessary – even in a place seemingly so remote from human activities – precisely because of these kinds of incidents. Cold waters recover more slowly from the kinds of oil spills and pollution that can occur after ship accidents. Furthermore, MPA proponents note that the Ross Sea and other areas of the Southern Ocean boast unusually pristine ecosystems, which can be valuable laboratories for scientists seeking to understand how to restore damaged ecosystems elsewhere in the world. Fishing would not be eliminated all together, but enough areas would be closed to fishing to ensure that the ecosystem has a chance to recover when accidents happen.
So there’s a tradeoff to be had between profits and protection. With new deep-sea species discovered in Antarctica just last week, the only question is whether the profits from toothfish are worth the clear risks to human life and the environment.
Claire Christian is the Director of the Secretariat of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), an organization dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Antarctic environment.