Countries that manage Antarctica want strong new controls on ships visiting the frozen continent to reduce the growing threat of human and environmental disasters posed by exploding numbers of tourists, an official said Wednesday.
Antarctica’s pristine environment, unpredictable and extreme weather, mostly uncharted waters and vast distances from habitation pose major dangers for vessels and major problems for rescuers in any emergency.
In the past, most shipping in Antarctica has been limited to scientific vessels bringing researchers or supplies. But traffic has burgeoned in recent years as tourists flock to see the world’s last great wilderness.
Some 45,000 tourists visited Antarctica in 2008, part of a trend of rising numbers in recent years. Almost all of them go on ships carrying up to 1,000 passengers that also take many tons of heavy fuel oil, chemicals and garbage that can pollute the region.
While there are rules governing issues such as the removal of waste and tourists’ conduct near animal breeding grounds, there currently are no formal codes to regulate vessels or the use and carriage of heavy fuel oils. Few of the ships have hulls strengthened to withstand ice or crews experienced in navigating around icebergs.
Trevor Hughes, the head of Antarctic policy at New Zealand’s foreign ministry, told The Associated Press that experts from all key members of the Antarctic Treaty, which since the 1950s has been the world’s main tool for managing the continent, want a tough new mandatory code for shipping and tourism in Antarctica.
“Without regulations, we are going to have a disaster where a lot of lives are lost and where oil spills out into the environment, and we see penguins being smothered and poisoned by fuel oil in their rookeries,” Hughes said.
New Zealand is one of the dozen founding members of the Antarctic Treaty, along with the United States, Russia, Britain and others, and is among those leading the push for shipping regulation.