June 23, 2006
Tighter Antarctic Protection Measures on Hold
By Ian MacKenzie
EDINBURGH (Reuters) - Antarctic Treaty countries failed on Friday to agree on tighter environmental measures to protect the continent amid a boom in tourism.
The growing number of tourists landing in Antarctica, mainly from cruise ships, has raised fears over the impact it could have on the continent's fragile ecology.
Another major issue is the size and type of vessels operating in dangerous southern waters and the potential for an environmental and human disaster if a large ship should sink in Antarctic seas.
Some delegates said there had been a lively debate during the annual 10-day meeting of the treaty nations, but the United States and some other nations had been unwilling to adopt new environmental measures without further study.
French diplomat Michel Trinquier, who chaired the tourism committee, told Reuters at the end of the session the environmental issues had come up suddenly without the usual documentation ahead of the 45-nation gathering.
He said however he expected the issues to be discussed at the next treaty conference in New Delhi next year.
"In my opinion, it was not (lack of) political will, or because of interest or because some delegates were against, but because they were not prepared, and this (issue) is a new thing," he said.
Tony Press, the outgoing head of the treaty's committee for environmental protection, said the number of tourists visiting Antarctica had quadrupled to 32,000 over the past eight years.
Most tour companies are members of the U.S.-based International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which enforces tight rules on its members in conjunction with the treaty organization.
Trinquier said there was concern, however, on how numbers of tourists -- and indeed scientists -- could impact on the continent's fragile environment, and also what control might be exerted over ships sailing under flags of convenience of countries not signatories to the treaty.
A maritime disaster was also a major and growing fear.
"Imagine there is a wreck, a huge oil spill in Antarctica. And there is the problem of search and rescue, because if you have 2,000 passengers on a vessel and the vessel sinks, what will happen, who will come to rescue them?" Trinquier said.
Some delegates expressed disappointment that the Edinburgh meeting had not agreed on stricter measures. But they said the problem was at least out in the open for discussion and future action.