Antarctica: cutting up a frozen pie

The dispute over the Falkland Islands and its outlying dependency of South Georgia highlights many of the troubling issues also present in the neighboring Antarctic and the surrounding Southern Ocean.

Although it has no indigenous population other than its penguins, the Antarctic is more than a huge block of ice. The continent is rich in marine and mineral resources, including potential petroleum reserves. These resources remain largely unexplored and unexploited. And the legal status of access and ownership to them is poorly defined. The combination of untapped resources and inconclusive legal claims creates an atmosphere in which future Falkland armadas are encouraged.

It does not take much imagination to study the Antarctic map and foresee future resource battles. Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom all have overlapping territorial claims in the Antarctic. In addition, Australia, France, New Zealand, and Norway have claimed their own areas. Fifteen percent of the Antarctic land mass remains unclaimed.

To add to this confusion, the United States and the Soviet Union officially recognize none of these claims, and reserve the right to stake out their own territory in the future. To understand this morass, the present supposed legal system should be reviewed.

Human activity in the Antarctic has been sporadic. Eighteenth-century explorers and whalers were the first to frequent the region. By 1940 the seven claims cited above had been made. The Antarctic region was singled out in 1957 for intensive scientific study as part of the International Geophysical Year, bringing together scientists from around the world. Scientists and diplomats alike called for a continuation of the international cooperation which took place during that year. The resulting Antarctic Treaty entered into force on June 23, 1961. The treaty has no specific termination date, yet there are provisions for a review in 1991.

The designers of the treaty made important provisions for free access to all parts of the continent, inspection rights of all scientific stations by any Antarctic treaty party, and the prohibition of nuclear testing and disposal. They did not, however, tackle the tougher questions of sovereignty and resource development.

The Antarctic treaty contains an agreement to hold all claims in abeyance for the duration of the treaty. That is, the status of claims will neither be recognized nor diminished by any activities undertaken in the region. Records of the Antarctic treaty negotiations are not publicly available. Yet, in light of the contentious territorial claims, it can be assumed that the issue of sovereignty was not ignored, but rather addressed in a compromise far short of a final solution.

Neither does the treaty mention access, ownership, or exploitation rights to potential Antarctic resources. Again, it is difficult to imagine that the question of resource development was completely absent from treaty negotiations. In the late 1950s exploitation of Antarctic resources was still far on the horizon.

The fact that no mineral deposits on the Antarctic continent are economically exploitable today does not preclude competition for them in a resource-scarce future. But it is the Antarctic continental shelves that may contain the greater treasures. In 1972-73 the US ship Glomar Challenger drilled four holes at a depth of 1,500 feet on the Antarctic continental shelf and discovered evidence of possible petroleum hydrocarbon formations. The Antarctic continental shelves may contain abundant supplies of oil and gas. This same possibility may have entered into the calculus of Argentina's decision to take the Falklands.

Most important in the exploitation of Antarctic resources today is the small shrimp-like krill, Euphausiam superba. Swarms of krill are being harvested by Japanese, Polish, and Soviet distant water fishing fleets. Krill contain 15 percent protein, a nutritional content roughly equivalent to beef, shrimp, or lobster and are an extremely attractive catch for protein-poor nations.

Recent estimates have indicated a yield of upwards to 100 million tons, a yield which could surpass the current total world fish catch. Krill has been marketed frozen whole in Japan, the Philippines, and other Asian countries where whole shrimp are a familiar cuisine. Krill may also be eaten as a paste or protein extract and has also been sold to produce krill-meal for cattle and poultry feed.

The potential riches and historical claims which have already brought conflict to the forefront in the Falkland Islands beg for cooperation before conflict erupts in the region. It is time to negotiate and institute a viable legal and political framework for the region.

Ideally, the interests of all mankind would be taken into account. Some diplomats and legal specialists have proposed an international solution akin to proposals for the development of ocean resources under the International Seabed Authority. At the other extreme, some claimant countries would prefer to see the international recognition of different countries' claims. Although certain nations hold fast to their Antarctic territories, an international framework incorporating broader international interests is conceivable.

Such an international framework may be seen in the proposals for an Antarctic consortium. Claimant states in the region would merge territorial claims. Jurisdiction over resource development would also be jointly held. Without abrogating national claims, provisions for access to untapped resources by claimants, other treaty members, and the international community could be negotiated.

Although still an imperfect solution, such an international framework could go far in defining access and exploitation rights for the international community -- and prevent innumerable convoys from steaming south to protect their interests in the Antarctic region.

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