Antarctica and the Arctic: A polar primer for the new great game
Antarctica and the Arctic are the focus of global hunger for untapped resources – and global warming has helped drive the polar rush.
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Chile's claims in Antarctica date back to World War II, and to whaling and fishing expeditions that go back to the early 1900s. Chile even maintains a perfunctory settlement in Antarctica, the town of Villa Las Estrellas on King George Island, where children as young as 6 are taught in a corrugated metal schoolhouse.Skip to next paragraph
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All of this "is about reminding Chilean citizens but also the wider world that they consider this to be national territory," says Klaus Dodds, a political geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London.
Most interesting of all, this same slice of Antarctica is also claimed by two other countries – Argentina (which makes all of the same symbolic gestures that Chile does) and Britain.
The Argentines see their claims in Antarctica on par with their claim of the British-controlled Falkland Islands, which prompted them to invade the islands in 1982. Britain may hold onto the Falklands so staunchly in part, says Dr. Dodds, because they provide a strategic gateway to British claims in Antarctica.
These latent disagreements hide beneath a veneer of harmony. The southern continent has been governed since 1961 by the Antarctic Treaty, a creation of the cold war, intended to prevent US-Soviet tensions from spilling into the region. The treaty enforces environmental regulations, allows nations to inspect each other's bases, and requires sharing of scientific data. It started with 12 nations, but now includes 28.
Just as people playing the board game Monopoly profit by building a house on Park Place or Boardwalk, countries building a station and conducting research in Antarctica can obtain treaty membership and influence.
"That motivates a lot of these countries to build a research station there and to fund some kind of scientific research," says Avango. "It is about being a part of a larger international community that can make decisions about the future of Antarctica."
This includes decisions about how and when Antarctica's natural resources should be harvested. For the moment, this includes only fishing in the ocean waters around the continent. Antarctic krill have been fished for decades; they're used in commercial fish feeds and omega-3 fatty acid dietary supplements.
But fishermen have recently begun venturing south in search of another species – and this has elicited controversy.
The 'sea bass' euphemism
In 1977 an American businessman began importing a new fish from South America to the US: a monstrosity with leathery lips and a mouth evolved for sucking up prey in the blink of an eye – the kind of looks you'd expect of a fish that lurks in the dark, as deep as 13,000 feet. Slicing the fish into skinless fillets relieved it of its appearance, and the businessman erased its last vestige of ugliness by changing its name from Patagonian toothfish to Chilean sea bass.
The fish was a hit in restaurants, prompting fishermen to look for it in other places. Their attention eventually turned to a closely related species, the Antarctic toothfish, which inhabits the world's southernmost waters. Commercial harvesting of Antarctic toothfish began in 1996, in Antarctica's Ross Sea.
Vessels fishing for toothfish carry scientific observers and are tracked by GPS; and a few fish are tagged and released in order to monitor the population. All this makes it "one of the best managed, most sustainable, environmentally benign fisheries in the world," says Martin Exel, a senior manager at Austral Fisheries, a company based in Perth, Australia, that fishes for toothfish.