Forecast: More Vessels Stuck in Antarctic Ice

Just as the Russian vessel Akademik Shokalskiy and the Chinese vessel sent to rescue it were finally dislodged from the ice after being stuck since Christmas Eve, three fishing vessels have followed a United States icebreaker deep into the Ross Sea to access ice-choked fishing grounds that would otherwise be impossible for their vessels to penetrate.

The three longline fishing vessels (Korean Kostar and Sunstar and the Russian Yantar 31) that have followed the United States icebreaker research vessel deep into the ice of the Ross Sea (photo by Laughlin Barker).
The three longline fishing vessels (Korean Kostar and Sunstar and the Russian Yantar 31) that have followed the United States icebreaker research vessel (Nathaniel B. Palmer) deep into the ice of the Ross Sea (photo by Laughlin Barker).

The height of summer in the Antarctic brings the peak research, tourist, and fishing season, yet the temperatures are still usually well below freezing and the ice conditions remain unpredictable and often treacherous. Despite the increasing frequency of vessel accidents in the Antarctic, there are currently no regulations to ensure that vessels venturing into the Southern Ocean are fit to endure the harsh and icy conditions.

The Akademik Shokalskiy was an oceanographic research vessel that had been ice-strengthened, but with no ice-breaking capacity. The Chinese “rescue” vessel Xue Long had been ice-strengthened with capacity for cutting through a few feet of ice. But only icebreakers, like the United States Polar Star that was sent to rescue the Russian and Chinese vessels, have the ability to crush through thicker ice, granting them the capacity to truly navigate the more southern Antarctic waters.

(See “U.S. Icebreaker Polar Star: Explaining the Ship in Antarctic Rescue.”)

One of the three fishing vessels that have followed the Nathaniel B. Palmer deep into the ice (photo by Laughlin Barker)
One of the three fishing vessels that have followed the cut path through the ice by Nathaniel B. Palmer (photo by Laughlin Barker).

Since the start of a fishery for toothfish in the Ross Sea, Antarctica in the mid-1990s, long-line fishing boats, which are not required to be icebreakers or even ice-strengthened, would follow leads in the ice broken by icebreakers like the United States Nathaniel B. Palmer to access fishing grounds that would otherwise be impossible for them to reach. Rumors suggest that the vessel captains would strike deals in the New Zealand port town bars to trade toothfish (lucratively sold on the market as “Chilean Sea Bass”) for a passage into the ice.

Nowadays, no such agreements are made, but fishing vessels, many of which are hardly seaworthy, still follow vessels like the Palmer deep into the ice. Scientists aboard the Palmer reported that three fishing long-liners, the Korean Kostar and Sunstar and the Russian Yantar 31, have followed them into the ice earlier this week.

Meanwhile long-liners in the Ross Sea have repeatedly proved their inability to safely navigate these ice-choked waters. The sinking of the Korean fishing vessel In Sung No. 1 in 2010 left 22 dead. The Russian vessel Sparta struck ice in 2011, flooding water into its punctured hull.

And just two years ago, the Korean fishing vessel Jeong Woo 2 caught fire, killing three. The crew had to be rescued by the Palmer, which happened to be in the vicinity.

Jeong Woo 2 on fire in the Ross Sea in 2012 (photo by Walker Smith).
Jeong Woo 2 on fire in the Ross Sea in January 2012 (photo by Walker Smith).

Conducting Antarctic research takes an incredible amount of time, energy and money to plan for and carry out. Many scientists spend years preparing and each day at sea is an invaluable opportunity to collect data, which is why when we are at sea we work 12-16 hour days, sometimes more. In the United States, Antarctic scientists have suffered under the current economy with fewer and fewer research projects funded, not to mention the repercussions of the recent federal shutdown which devastated this year’s Antarctic field season.

Yet if any of these three fishing vessels currently following the Palmer through the thick ice of the Ross Sea becomes stuck, then the scientists aboard the icebreaker must halt their science, losing critical research and money since the Palmer costs roughly $55,000/day to operate. Since the icebreaker is a National Science Foundation vessel, this means that U.S. tax dollars are incidentally facilitating fishing vessels to travel deeper in the ice than they should to catch a fish that is only affordable by the wealthy.

Currently, there are no rules to prevent fishing vessels from following the paths cut in the ice by icebreakers. Further, international efforts are underway to strengthen vessel standards in the Arctic and Antarctic to reduce the number of accidents, but it is currently unclear if these rules will apply to the fishing industry at some future date. In the Ross Sea in particular, hundreds of scientists have actually petitioned to keep fishing out of the region, which is considered to be one of the most pristine large ocean ecosystems left on the planet.

Whether these protections or new standards will be adopted soon remains to be seen. But until they are, and with the Antarctic summer still upon us, we can count on more vessels being stuck in the ice.

Emperor Penguin and Icebreaker (photo by John B. Weller).
Cassandra Brooks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder studying international ocean policy, particularly focusing on marine protection in the Antarctic.
  • Sharon Maclise

    Why would the US rescue these vessels and not charge for their efforts and the cost they incur?

  • Christine Brooks

    It is inconceivable and mindboggling how GREEDY and to what extent some ccountries will do to follow an icebreaker of research scientists. These scientists spend night and day working hard in these unbearable freezing temperatures and conditions to save at least a small part of this pristine part of the earth.

  • Jim Mann

    It’s a shame that the icebreaker doesn’t have the capability to re-seal the channel behind it and prevent what seems a pretty reckless and parasitic practice by the longliners. Such a waste of research funds and resources.

    Airlift the crews, let the boats sink?

  • tess park

    The sprit of the antarctic treaty is to use the antarctic only for peaceful and scientific purposes. We all share the findings and help one another if there is a mishap including such accidents philanthropically. I love such a noble concept that barely found in the international treaties. However we need to build a strong regulation on fleets for safety as the author suggested. A coupleyears back, a Korean icebreaker spent valuable research time on rescuing people and it costs a lot.

  • Anton

    confused penguin, “what’s that” hahaha

  • Victoria A

    These fishing vessels disgust me. Greed and selfishness are destroying the planet.
    The Ross Sea needs to be protected. Yet a New Zealand-US bid to establish the world’s largest marine reserve in the Ross Sea of Antarctica was blocked by China, Russia and Ukraine. See:
    This is one of the last pristine seas on earth and slow-growing toothfish are being overfished. Those interested in knowing more about why the Ross Sea should be protected, search out the film, “The Last Ocean,”
    As New Zealand step up efforts to drill for oil and gas throughout its waters, including the Great South Basin in its south, new threats arise for the Southern Ocean.

  • stephen yarwood

    All vessels should be covered by an Insurance policy which rescuers can use. Forfeiture of the craft would then be a fit reaction to a lack of insurance policy.

  • Margaret

    Great penquin/ship photo.

    The humane thing to do is rescue the fishing boats and the fishermen. However, send the owners a bill for $2,285 per hour for use of the icebraker’s time. More per hour could be charged to actually turn resue efforts into a money making venture!

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