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Antarctica - Economy

In 1978 the Antarctic Treaty nations agreed to prohibit the taking of fur, elephant and Ross seals, and to limit the annual catch of various other species. No seal hunting has taken place in the Antarctic since 1964 and the populations of fur and elephant seals have significantly regenerated themselves in the last half of the 20th century.

In 1994 the member nations of the International Whaling Commission declared Antarctic waters a whale sanctuary in which no commercial whaling is allowed. The Antarctic fishery, a tiny fraction of the worlds total annual catch of about 80 million tons, is regulated by the Antarctic Treatys 1982 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.

British sealers first crossed the Antarctic Convergence in 1778, and Americans in about 1792. Profits were enormous. Around 1797 the Neptune of New Haven, a ship worth perhaps $3,000, gathered 45,000 skins at the Falklands and Juan Fernandez, sold them for $90,000 in Canton, bought Chinese goods there and sold them for $260,000 in New York. As subantarctic seals were decimated the sealers pushed farther south. In 1820-1821, at least 30 American, 24 British, and 1 Australian vessels were hunting seals in the South Shetlands.

The next year the numbers were perhaps doubled. Landings were said to have been made on the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Orkney Islands were discovered, and at least one and maybe three Americans traveled as far south as 66S on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. James Weddell (British) discovered the Weddell Sea. Fur seals and then elephant seals (for their oil) were reduced almost to extinction by the mid-1800s, at which point the sealers for all practical purposes abandoned this activity.

Whaling began in Antarctic waters in the 19th century. The industry enlarged greatly in the early 1900s, when steamships, harpoon guns, and shore processing stations (notably at South Georgia) were introduced. During the 1912-1913 season 10,760 whales were caught. After that time nearly all the whales caught in the world were taken in Antarctic waters. In 1931, the peak year, 40,199 whales were caught in the Antarctic, while 1,124 were caught in the rest of the world. The whaling industry declined after 1960. In the 1980-1981 season fewer than 6,000 whales were caught in the Antarctic; all were Minke whales, a relatively small-sized species.

Commercial fishing was begun by the Soviet Union in 1967, and in 1971 a Soviet fleet of 40 trawlers and support ships in the southern ocean landed an estimated 300,000 tons mostly cod, herring, and whiting. In 1995-1996 ten nations landed 115,188 tons, of which 91 percent was krill and the rest finfish. Japan was the principal participant with more than half the catch; the other substantial fishers were Poland and Ukraine. This catch continued modest annual increases since 1993, but well below those taken during the years up through 1990-1991, when the Soviet Union disbanded its long-distance fleet.

The issue of exploitation of mineral resources in Antarctica is addressed in Article 7 of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty: Any activity relating to mineral resources, other than scientific research, shall be prohibited. U. S. Public Law 104-227, the Antarctic Science, Tourism, and Conservation Act of 1996, implements the provisions of the Protocol. President Clinton signed it into law on October 2, 1996.

Based on current knowledge of the continents geological setting, the chance that valuable mineral deposits exist in Antarctica appears reasonably high. Prior to approximately 200 million years ago, Antarctica was the centerpiece of a large Southern Hemisphere supercontinent, Gondwana, that included what is today South America, Africa, Madagascar, peninsular India, Antarctica, Australia, and New Zealand. The wide distribution of mineral resources across these other Gondwanan continents, including base metals and precious stones, implies that similar deposits probably exist in Antarctica. But with rare exception, the areas that are most likely to contain mineral deposits are covered by the ice sheet.

The occurrence of major hydrocarbon deposits in Antarctica is uncertain because deep drilling has not been conducted on the continental shelf; however, the geological evolution of the Antarctic continental margin has resulted in the development of large sedimentary basins with known source rocks for hydrocarbons and likely reservoirs to store these hydrocarbons.

Given the prevailing conditions, it is improbable that chance discoveries of mineral deposits will be made in Antarctica. Rather, exploration for mineral deposits would require a dedicated, costly program, including in many cases the development of new technologies.

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Page last modified: 10-06-2017 18:28:30 ZULU