Man has been a master of exploitation. The concept of an exploitation-free Antarctic is an ideal that many have worked for, Antarctic being the last "untouched" continent. Expecting this to be the case is both unrealistic and impractical. Others believe that for its survival the world needs the protein and energy locked in the seas and bedrock of Antarctica.
Let's look at the various form of hunting carried out in Antarctica.
In the 20th century, whalers entered the South Ocean. After many years of hunting in the north, there werenít enough whales anymore and the Southern Ocean became the world's major whaling ground. First humpback, then blue, fin sei and minke whales were hunted almost to extinction. Only 1% of the original stocks of blue whales, 3% of humpbacks and 30% of fin whales remain. Since Antarctic whaling began in 1904, 1.3 million whales weighting 70 million tonnes have been killed.
The IWC was set up in 1946 to control the development of the whaling industry. They tried to enforce limited seasons, minimum sizes and other controls to halt the decline in whale stocks. But little was known about whale ecology so there were no clear scientific limits to exploitation.
From the early 1970 onwards, conservation groups began to estimate the population of the whale and tried to save whales from further depletion. In 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Environment called for a ten-year moratorium on commercial whaling. Due to opposition by Russia and Japan, the two main whaling nations, it was not adopted by the IWC until 1982. In 1992 Norway and Iceland tried without success to have the moratorium lifted. Since the moratorium came into effect, Japan continue to kill about 300 minke whales a year for so-called research purposes.
Fur seals had been virtually wiped out since the industry started in 1800 when 112'000 skins were taken. By 1822 James Weddell estimated that 1.2 million seals had been slaughtered. From 1870 the industry was uneconomic because so few seals were left, and when commercial sealing finally ended in 1912, around 3 million fur seals had been killed. Elephant seal were the next target. They were harvested for their blubber rather than their skins. By the 1950s when that industry also failed, over 1 million seals had died. Crabeater, Weddell, Ross and leopard seals have never been the subject of commercial slaughter in modern times.
To protect the remaining seals, a Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals was negotiated and signed in 1972. It sets very low limits on catches of some seals, and entirely prohibits others. Commercial sealing has never resumed.
In the late 1960s commercial fishing began in the South Atlantic, mainly by Russian Trawlers. Not only fish were taken, also krill. They have a shorter live span, but they breed twice yearly. So they are much more productive and can sustain a higher yielding fishery. The fishing followed the same results as sealing and whaling. Fish catches have fluctuated widely as each species was exploited. The main reason for this is that Antarctic fish are long-lived. grow slowly and take a long time to reach maturity and breed. This means they cannot be as heavily harvested as quicker growing and breeding species like krill. But harvesting krill means, taking the food of many Antarctic species, as krill is at the centre of the Antarctic marine ecosystem.
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