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- Fishing

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The Impact of Fisheries

Fishing is now the only large-scale resource exploitation that is going on in Antarctica. Most other world fisheries have been over exploited even where controls are in place to prevent this and this has to be a concern for Antarctic fisheries too.

The potential problems are:

Factory ship / trawler in Antarctic waters
Ocean -going fishing trawler in Antarctica

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba
The regulation of Antarctic fisheries is carried out by The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources - CCAMLR. This came into force in 1982, as part of the Antarctic Treaty System.

The CCAMLR was established chiefly as a result of concerns that an increasing krill catches in the Southern Ocean could have serious effects on the population of krill. Krill is a major and vital part of the Antarctic food web and so disturbances to populations could have major and far-reaching effects on the whole ecosystem.

The protection of fisheries is different to other controls in Antarctica in that the target is that of a sustainable exploitation rather than of complete protection. As fisheries protection goes, there is a difference in that not only is the particular target species considered, but the effect of fishing that species on other dependent or associated species is also taken into consideration too. Any fishing boats are required to report their catches so that the stock taken can be assessed.

The initial purpose of regulating the krill fishery was fairly soon not so important due to a slow down in the catch of krill. Catches of 300,000 to 400,000 tonnes a year through the 1980's dropped to less than 100,000 tonnes by 1993 due to the collapse of the Soviet Union which sent most of the fishing vessels.

The catch from 2000 was relatively stable at around 120,000 tonnes though increased to 210,000 tonnes by 2011.

Currently (2013) a new system of managing the krill catch is being devised which segments the krill catch so that not too much is being taken in any one area ensuring that there is sufficient left for predators that depend on the krill. This is dependent on the co-operation of scientists, commercial fishers, fishery managers and Non-Governmental Organizations from a wide range of countries. Until an agreement has been reached, interim limits have been set. In the South West Atlantic sector for instance close to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia, this limit is 620,000 tonnes, which represents approximately 1% of the estimated krill biomass in that area.

Southern ocean krill is one of the oceans greatest unexploited fisheries stocks. There are a number of reasons that krill is so underexploited, the cost of fishing in the Southern Ocean, and the difficulty in producing saleable products for instance (krill is pretty stinky stuff and not so nice to eat). Krill oils do however contain high levels of omega-3 which makes them valuable to the pharmaceutical and complementary health food markets, a market that started about 2002 and has been growing since. Krill is also increasingly used as a foodstuff to feed farmed fish.

Krill are small and delicate and present in large quantities, so if you've overcome the economics of getting ocean-going fishing vessels down to the cold, stormy Antarctic Ocean, then a net full of krill will largely be a net full of damaged krill. They may look a bit like shrimps but aren't like them in the manner of the fishery (krill are planktonic), there is also the problem that they start to self-digest quickly after death, so a catch of krill will quickly turn useless for food purposes within 1 to 3 hours if not rapidly processed. It is usually frozen for use as fish food, or boiled and frozen for human consumption.

Antarctic fisheries have already been damaged. In the late 1960's the Soviet Union targeted marbled Notothenids and icefish around South Georgia. 400,000 tonnes was taken in the in 1969-70 season followed by a rapid decline from which the stocks have still to recover fully.

Antarctic Toothfish, a related species - this one was caught by researchers and returned to the sea
Photo: Alexander Colhoun - National Science Foundation

More recently the cause for concern has been the Patagonian Toothfish, Dissostichus eleginoides. This fish represents something of a marketing coup, it is not an attractive looking fish at all, the original name is not terribly appealing but it makes for excellent eating.

Up-market restaurants have re-labeled the fish the "Chilean Sea Bass" and it is generally not presented whole, but filleted or otherwise processed. The result has been that there is a great rise in popularity and a demand that far exceeds the set quotas. As it commands a premium price in restaurants, then there are plenty of more than willing unscrupulous fishermen who are prepared to illegally fish for it. It is generally caught in the sub Antarctic.

The illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing of the Patagonian toothfish is of concern because it has the potential to undermine attempts to manage the stock as a sustainable resource. management is also made difficult as it is traded under different names in different places, Bacalao de profundidad in Chile, Butterfish in Mauritius, Chilean Sea Bass in the USA and Canada and Mero in Japan.

Illegal fishing is further cause for concern as the types of people it attracts are generally not concerned about the use of questionable or illegal techniques that can cause the death of non-target species as by-catch. Albatrosses in particular are under threat as they are taken inadvertently by long-line fishing as the birds swoop down to catch the bait being hooked and then are drowned.

US Department of State - Chilean Sea Bass

National Geographic Chilean Sea Bass

Wandering Albatross and long-lining

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