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Antarctica - A Marine zone that needs strong governance

Key Antarctica Trip More than Waving at Penguins

Antarctica - A Marine zone that needs strong governance

Antarctica – Image by Georges Nijs

No sooner is our venerable leader back from Hawaii, but he is off to Antarctica. But don’t be fooled – this is more than a jolly to hang out with penguins; the change in temperature alone will come as quite a shock. John Key visiting Antarctica it is a recognition that the white continent to our south is not only important, but that making a diplomatic effort matters. Certainly his visit matters a lot more than the mindless platitudes of green groups. It is great that he has gone down there.

Antarctica is important to us. That is why last year I organised a trip down there myself with the Our Far South (http://www.ourfarsouth.org/ ) expedition and wrote the book Ice, Mice and Men, with Geoff Simmons. Sure, it is a beautiful part of the world, unparalleled in fact. That is one reason to go there, especially since it is on our back doorstep. But the main reason for going is that Antarctica is vital to our national security, climate and much of our unique wildlife. And there are many issues facing the region, including climate change and the race for resources, not just fish and whales but possibly a renewed interest in the minerals locked under Antarctica’s ice cap.

Showing your face in Antarctica is important because it is managed by a group of nations. While we lay claim to the Ross Dependency – a slice of the Continent – other nations don’t recognise our claim. Instead of pushing it we signed up to a Treaty which nations ‘freeze’ or suspend their claims and agree to manage Antarctica together. As a result Mr Key can’t sit in Wellington and make bold pronouncements, even over the Ross Dependency. We don’t have that power.

Taking care of Antarctica requires a constant diplomatic effort. John Key’s visit may look like the usual smile and wave routine, but the symbolism is much stronger. His presence is simultaneously reasserting our claim, bolstering our position at the negotiation table, and recognising the wonderful contribution the Scott Base installation has made for so long. Declaring to the world that Antarctica is important to us and we want it managed well is central to Mr Key’s visit. New Zealand has a long history of leadership in Antarctica.

It all sounds a bit wishy-washy, even limp-wristed, but it has far more negotiating clout with other nations than the attractive sound bites of the Greenies. And if we want to make a difference in our far south, that is what we need. It is times like this when having a ‘nice bloke’ as your PM can really help.

By contrast, the platitudes of environmental groups make for cool sound bites, but are really nothing more than a distraction. Take the recent debate over the marine reserve in the Ross Sea. Green groups have been chasing rainbows trying to lock up the whole Ross Sea region from fishing, while New Zealand and the United States have put forward more realistic proposals that cover the Ross Sea proper and are more likely to achieve the consensus needed.

A lot of fuss has been made over this reserve proposal, yet ironically while it was being discussed with much fanfare everyone was blind to a bigger threat. So much effort was put into marine reserve proposals at the last CCAMLR, that there was no time to discuss the proposals for fishing this year. As a result all requests for fishing were automatically agreed. The net result is that we now have 6 more boats approved for fishing in the Ross Sea – a 30% increase. So far this season only 3 have shown up, but the trend is worrying. While the total catch is tightly managed, more boats operating there makes the job of reigning in dodgy Korean and Russian boats more difficult.

The groups of the Green Extreme like to wax lyrical about the white continent, yet the reality is that Antarctica is managed in shades of grey. No, I don’t mean the dodgy women’s novels, I mean the grey areas of treaties and diplomacy. Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs may not be sexy, but they are the ones who get stuff done down there. Environmental groups often play a useful role to push society gently in a different direction. In the case of Antarctica they are barking too loud, barking up the wrong tree. They need to focus on convincing people in countries like Russia, South Korea and China. Meantime MFAT and Prime Minister Key are doing a perfectly good job of looking after our affairs.