Yesterday the International Court of Justice concluded that Japan’s whale hunt in the southern ocean near Antarctica was not, in fact, for “scientific research.” For the last few years, Japanese boats have gone into the Southern Ocean, gotten their quota (850) of whales per year. Sometimes they never reach that quota because Sea Shepherd, an Australian organization, watches them very closely and manages to halt them and drive them out of Antarctic waters. Theoretically, Japan’s little slap on the wrist for whaling and temporary halt, happens every year. The only change this year is that it came from the United Nations – which is why everyone is calling victory.
This may be a victory, but it is very small one. The real issue at hand is being completely ignored. Yes, whaling has temporarily been halted in Antarctica. As one of Antarctica’s biggest fans, I am thrilled. But the bigger issue has not even been mentioned once in any of the articles about Antarctic whaling – Antarctica’s waters are under attack. Whaling is the smallest offense. If we want to be true stewards of the environment and truly protect this irreplaceable environment, we need to designate the entire Southern Ocean a marine sanctuary and halt ALL commercial fishing.
Perhaps while you have been out to a restaurant recently or in the past you’ve seen something called Chilean Sea Bass on the menu. It is often described as a sweet, flakey firm white fish that lacks a fishy taste. What’s not to love? The truth. Chilean Sea Bass does not come from Chile. It comes from Antarctica. Its real name is Antarctic Toothfish but its name was changed to make it more appealing. These fish are the most dominant fish predator in Antarctica – in other words, they are the largest fish in the sea. They not only feed on smaller things, but they themselves are also food for seals, whales, squid, and a subspecies of orca that almost exclusively feeds on them. Since humans all of a sudden developed a taste for this fish, their numbers have reduced drastically. Since Antarctica is a cold place, things happen very slowly there. Things change slowly (or never), things mature slowly, things reproduce slowly. The toothfish numbers have not been able to keep up with insatiable human consumption and cannot support the environment’s needs as well.
Toothfish is not the only resident of Antarctica in danger at the hands of commercial fishing. On TV and on the web there are ads and commercials for the benefits of krill oil over fish oil. Not only are these little red pills more attractive than the golden fish oil ones, they supposedly offer no fishy burps and faster Omega-3 absorption! What is there to lose? EVERYTHING! Krill are the backbone, the nucleus, the spark of Antarctic life. EVERYTHING alive in Antarctica feeds on krill – from little icefish, to penguins, to seals, to humpback whales. If krill were to disappear, there would be no Antarctica. The truth is krill ARE disappearing. Krill numbers have declined 80% in the last 30 years. That is huge. That is much bigger than 850 whales being taken out of the water a year. Just let that sink in. 80% of the mainstay of Antarctic ecosystem has declined.
So yes. Hooray! Antarctic whaling program has been temporarily halted. That is good news. But you know what would be GREAT NEWS? No more fishing in Antarctica. Hearing that toothfish numbers are bouncing back. Hearing that krill no longer will be taken from Antarctic waters. And the best news of all? That the Southern Ocean, once the most pristine place on Earth, is designated the largest marine sanctuary. Each year many nations come together to try, and every year they fail. Maybe with this temporary halt of the whaling it is a first step.