Antarctic governance


The Antarctic Treaty and a set of related international agreements, known collectively as the Antarctic Treaty System, provide the framework for governance of the Antarctic region.

Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty was signed in December 1959 and entered into force in 1961. From the 12 original parties (including Australia) in 1959, membership of the treaty has now grown to 53 countries. The Antarctic Treaty area—the area south of 60°S—comprises 10 per cent of our planet’s total surface area. Australia and 6 other nations claim territory in Antarctica. While the Antarctic Treaty is in place, differences of opinion regarding the status of territorial claims are effectively set to one side, and the Antarctic is available to be used by any nation for peaceful and scientific purposes. Russia, China, India, the United States and France–Italy have permanently occupied stations in the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) (Figure ANT1). In 2015, Belarus began construction of a station within the AAT near Russia’s Molodyozhnaya Station.

Australia was instrumental in the negotiations leading to the treaty and, together with France, instigated the negotiations that resulted in the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991), known as the Madrid Protocol. The Madrid Protocol establishes the internationally agreed framework for comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment, and designates Antarctica as a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’. The Madrid Protocol established the Committee for Environmental Protection as an expert advisory body to provide advice and formulate environmental recommendations in respect of the protocol to meetings of Antarctic Treaty members. Activities subject to the protocol must be assessed for their environmental impacts. Activities must also be planned and conducted in a manner that ensures protection of the Antarctic environment, and its dependent and associated ecosystems.

Each signatory state is required to pass enabling legislation to give effect to the environmental protection measures of the protocol relating to activities of their national programs and citizens while in Antarctica. Australia has done this through the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980.

The provisions of the Antarctic Treaty and the Madrid Protocol do not apply to Australia’s subantarctic islands. Administrative control and government responsibilities for Heard Island and McDonald Islands were handed from the British to the Australian Government in 1947. The islands are an external territory of Australia and are managed on behalf of the government by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). Macquarie Island and nearby islets are part of Tasmania, and are managed by the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment.

Australia works closely with fellow Antarctic Treaty parties to ensure the effective governance of the region, to undertake important scientific research, and to conserve and protect Antarctica’s unique environment.

Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources

The conservation of Antarctic marine living resources is subject to the regulations imposed under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. This convention came into force in 1982 as part of the Antarctic Treaty System. Article 1 of the convention defines its area of operation as ‘the area south of 60° South latitude and the area between that latitude and the Antarctic Convergence which form part of the Antarctic marine ecosystem’ (UN 1980).

The convention was established because of a growing concern among the Antarctic Treaty parties that an increase in krill catches in the Southern Ocean could have a serious effect on populations of krill and other marine life—particularly birds, seals and fish, all of which depend predominantly on krill for food. Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba) was first fished in the 1960s at low levels (4 tonnes in 1961–62 and 306 tonnes in 1964–65) as an exploratory fishery (Miller & Agnew 2000). Commercial exploitation began only in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when around 500,000 tonnes of Antarctic krill were caught each year (Nicol et al. 2011).

The convention is implemented through the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). CCAMLR comprises 25 member states; a further 11 countries have agreed to the terms of the convention. The objective of the convention is the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources. CCAMLR has implemented an ecosystem-based management system to ensure that not only are the fisheries sustainable, but that the needs of dependent predators and the ecosystem are given due consideration. This sets CCAMLR apart from regional fishery management organisations, which focus largely on the management and production of harvested species, and often deal with a single species. CCAMLR considers the needs of krill-dependent predators and sets catch limits to ensure that their needs are met. Several krill-dependent predators were selected as indicators of the health of the Southern Ocean ecosystem, and the CCAMLR Ecosystem Monitoring Program was developed. Its aim is ‘to detect and record significant changes in critical components of the ecosystem to serve as a basis for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources’ (CCAMLR 1984). Indicator species include Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) and crabeater seals (Lobodon carcinophagus). The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources was the first international convention whose fisheries management strategy was based on the ecosystem approach (Arnaudo 2005).

CCAMLR now considers and adopts a range of conservation measures, including those that protect the general marine environment, species and communities, and those that manage commercial fishing activities. The precautionary approach adopted by CCAMLR requires that conservation and management measures are established, so that populations of harvested species do not decrease below levels that ensure stable recruitment. CCAMLR also encourages national programs operating in Antarctica to undertake fisheries-related research aimed at maintaining species stocks at levels that maintain recruitment into populations of target species, but also provide for the needs of dependent species (Constable 2002).

CCAMLR has successfully implemented the ecosystem approach to management in new, exploratory and established fisheries under its control. Fishing in the Southern Ocean in CCAMLR sectors 58.4.1 and 58.4.2 (East Antarctica) has remained well below set catch limits, since no fisheries operate there. However, catch limits are still set for the East Antarctic sectors should a fishery reopen there. Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and icefish are currently harvested in Australian subantarctic waters, and precautionary catch limits apply in accordance with CCAMLR’s conservation measures.

Klekociuk A, Wienecke B (2016). Antarctic environment: Antarctic governance. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra,, DOI 10.4226/94/58b65b2b307c0