The Antarctic Treaty System is the primary international governance framework for the Antarctic region. Australia’s engagement with the international forums of the Antarctic Treaty System supports Australia’s objectives of protection and management of the Antarctic region, including the AAT. These objectives are embodied in Australian legislation and are given effect through the administration of this legislation by the AAD.

International engagement

Internationally, Australia has taken a leading role in promoting environmental protection within the Antarctic Treaty System since its inception. Australia actively participates and leads discussions in key Antarctic international forums, including the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), the Committee for Environmental Protection, CCAMLR, the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs, and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels.

Australian legislation

The obligations contained within Australia’s international agreements are incorporated into Australian domestic law:

  • The legal regime for the AAT is established in the Australian Antarctic Territory Act 1954.
  • The Antarctic Treaty Act 1960 gives effect to the Antarctic Treaty. Other Australian legislation implements parts of the Antarctic Treaty System into Australian law, including the Antarctic Treaty (Environment Protection) Act 1980, which gives effect to the Madrid Protocol and sets out environmental protection obligations for all activities in the Antarctic Treaty area.
  • The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) applies to activities undertaken on Australian land (such as the AAT), including those that may have significant impact on matters of national environmental significance.
  • The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is implemented in domestic law through the Antarctic Marine Living Resources Conservation Act 1981.

The legal regime for Heard Island and McDonald Islands is established in the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Act 1953. Under this Act, the Environment Protection and Management Ordinance 1987 provides for the protection of the environment and controls access to the territory. The territory is also a World Heritage–listed site and a proclaimed Commonwealth Reserve under the EPBC Act. All activities in the territory must be in accordance with the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve Management Plan.

The Macquarie Island Commonwealth Marine Reserve is adjacent to the Macquarie Island Nature Reserve, which is managed by the Tasmanian Government. The marine reserve is subject to the EPBC Act, with activities in the reserve governed by the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network Management Plan 2013–23. Macquarie Island is also a World Heritage–listed site.

Marine environment

This section relates to international agreements of relevance to the Antarctic marine environment other than the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources and the Antarctic Treaty/Madrid Protocol, which are the primary instruments.

The International Whaling Commission was established in December 1946 when the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling was signed by 15 nations, including Australia. The commission operates independently from the Antarctic Treaty System. Currently, it has 88 member states, and biannual meetings are held in the various member countries. A committee of approximately 200 whale biologists offers scientific advice to the commission.

Seals living in Antarctic waters are protected and managed under agreements separate from the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals is part of the Antarctic Treaty System. It entered into force generally in 1978 and for Australia in 1987. This convention applies to all earless seals and southern fur seals. Currently, there is no commercial sealing in the Antarctic.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is a United Nations agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping, and the prevention of marine pollution by ships. IMO agreements apply to shipping in Antarctic waters, and are an important avenue for enhancing Antarctic environmental protection.

In recognition of the risk of pollution associated with heavy fuel oils, which break down more slowly than other fuels, the parties to the Antarctic Treaty initiated discussions with the IMO to limit the use and carriage of heavy and intermediate fuel oils in ships in Antarctic waters. An amendment to MARPOL (International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships) 73/78 Annex I, banning the use of heavy fuels in the Antarctic area, entered into force on 1 August 2011.

With the participation and support of the parties to the Antarctic Treaty, the IMO adopted the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code). The aim of the Polar Code is to provide for safe ship operation and the protection of polar environments; the code will enter into force on 1 January 2017. The Polar Code includes provisions relating to equipment, design and construction, and operations of vessels in polar waters, including the waters of the Antarctic region. Australia was active in the negotiation of the Polar Code in the IMO.

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