Before You Celebrate End of Whaling in Antarctica, Read This

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.
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Antarctica’s Purpose

Ever since I started this blog I have been itching to do a post on Antarctica, a place that is unlike any other place in the world that I’ve visited before. I never thought that this White Continent could have any impact on me, but oh boy it did. I enjoyed my time there, but it wasn’t until I returned did I realize the hold it had one me.
              I met a friend after returning for coffee and when I told them where I’d been, they said, “Oh you must be glad to be back to reality.” I smiled and said yes. When I left them though I thought more about what they said. Reality. What is reality? I wandered around my house. I knocked on the walls, turned my water on and off. I looked outside and watched the cars go by. Reality? This is not reality. This is what we’ve created. This is not real – it is all artificial.
              I often try to imagine what the Earth once looked like without any human impact. I thought I had a grasp of this when I was out west in the high desert in California. I thought I definitely knew what this looked and felt like when I lived in Kenya and wandered for miles in the Great Rift Valley. It felt like there wasn’t a soul, but the truth is, no matter where you are in Kenya, people always emerge from the haze. It wasn’t until I went to Antarctica did I understand what true reality meant. What the Earth means without human impact.
              It is one of the few places that humans have a minimal footprint. When I came down there in 2012 I kept looking at mountains and glaciers and one thing that kept me in awe was thinking “no one has put a footprint here. No one has touched that rock before.” No humans are going to come out of the mist here. This is what the Earth looked like before humans put their stamp on it. I want to keep it that way.
              As Antarctica becomes more accessible, we need to draw the line. This is the last frontier. Without a doubt science in Antarctica is very important. This should never end. Exploration of Antarctica is also important. This is Antarctica’s legacy. I also think that tourism is very important to the region. Without this people will never come to this breathtaking region, fall in love, and feel the need to protect it.
              One thing I do object to though is using Antarctica as a playground, which I am starting to see more and more. Recently there was a documentary that came out whose sole purpose, as far as I could see, was to show off these fellows snowboarding in Antarctica. Their crew did not conduct any scientific research (as far as I could see). There were some token scenes of wildlife, but for the most part it was these two guys that got bored with their mountains at home and came to Antarctica to seek out new and exciting mountains to snowboard and to be the first.
              I appreciated the magnificent scenic views, but did not appreciate what this could insinuate. It also could potentially open the door for others to come and use Antarctica as a playground. You do not mountain bike in the Serengeti. Why is there snowboarding in Antarctica? This should not be allowed. The Antarctic Treaty was founded and designated Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” This does not include using it as a recreation area. I would think snowboarding and likewise activities would hinder scientific pursuits and impair the environment.
              Antarctica is a continent that is not meant to be tamed. She may come across as a lonely, beautiful landmass enticing us to come keep her company, but she will turn on you in the flick of a fin. The winds coming off the glaciers change, the glaciers calve, and she reminds you that while she likes you being there, she is still in charge. People using her for recreation is an attempt to tame her. Scientists coming down to study her and her secrets is respecting her. Tourists coming down to appreciate her natural beauty is to pay her homage. We need to continue to treat Antarctica with awe and respect that she deserves.
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