Dr Gareth Morgan -
The Our Far South Voyage marked it's half way point over the weekend by getting a welcome and tour at Scott Base, Antarctica. Three days of splendid weather and blue skies, awe-inspiring.
But this trip isn't all about the sight-seeing. But this trip isn't all about the sight-seeing. The point of this project is to present the issues that are important to our sub-Antarctic islands, the southern ocean and Antarctica, discuss the challenges each area of our far south face, make an assessment of how we're doing on each and then communicate back to our fellow citizens on how we see things standing.
So where are we? So far onboard discussions have centred on the ecological and climate change issues surrounding the sub-Antarctic islands and the Southern Ocean. We have yet to really get stuck into the geopolitical issues that hang over Antarctica.
On the biology of our sub-Antarctic islands we accept that many species are declining rapidly in number and we know there are a range of possible culprits for this - pests on the islands, impacts of climate change on food sources in the ocean and the impacts of fishing. It is an altogether more difficult task to make an accurate attribution of the damage to each threat and of course "more research" is always needed. But good management doesn't wait for full information if the cost of that is the damage done is beyond repair.
This is an argument that's common in the climate change debate and the 'precautionary principle' demands action now. Similarly with the impact of fishing on the oceans ecosystem. And it is the situation in both cases that action is being taken to mitigate the damage. A number of bycatch protection devices are in place, and controls on the size of the catch serve to ensure we don't fish down species to extinction. But the complexity of the indirect effects from fishing down a species on predator and prey and food supplies are not well understood to put it mildly. The implication then is that we should be even more conservative on our fish catches until we do understand food chain implications. Achieving that is where the cutting edge of the debate on controlling fishing sits. And it's where reform of our own Fisheries Act is overdue, the burden of proof of whether a fishing activity is causing undue damage lies with those who have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that it is. In this day and age the burden of proof should be with the fishing industry to establish that it's not. Political support for such a precautionary approach has to be strengthened and that requires public support.
Similarly with climate change generally. The science debate aboard on this topic has been vigorous - not on the issue of whether human-induced climate change exists or not, nowadays that discussion has been marginalised to the world of ill-informed and simplistic at best, talkback radio. Even the issues of how much warming causes what changes is pretty well know. Now the serious issue is how much emitted CO2 causes how much global warming and over what time period? Only then can we get an acceptable feel for the outlook. We're still in the position of seeing evidence mount all around us but not really having a great feel for the future. Official estimates keep getting revised, sadly for the worse; while policy and business changes to curb emissions move at a glacial pace with no slowdown detected in the growth rate of emissions as yet. Again a precautionary approach would see us curbing emissions pronto, and not changing that until we're sure we have a firm grip on what the climate consequences are. Achieving that requires global coordination of some sort - an even harder challenge than getting our fishing policy sustainable which requires only a national commitment.
Next for the discussion groups will be the issues swirling around Antarctica itself - the race to build bases, to determine the mineral wealth, to extract fish and krill, and the big one - to stake territorial claims. Those debates will be on the table during our voyage home.
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