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Exploitation of marine resources in the Southern Ocean

The major living resources in the Southern Ocean are whales, seals, birds, fish, krill and squid. The use of these resources goes back over two centuries (Agnew and Nicol 1996; Walton 1987) and it has been characterized by progressive over-harvesting (Figure 1).


When Captain Cook crossed the Atlantic Circle and discovered South Georgia between 1772 and 1775 (Kriwoken and Williamson 1993) he reported fur seals in abundance on its beaches (Stonehouse 2002). His discovery marks the beginning of exploitation of marine species in the Southern Ocean with the earliest records of sealing dating from 1786. After this, a major commercial fishing industry developed on sub-Antarctic islands and hunting of southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) followed (Kock 1994). Exploitation resulted in seal and whale populations being reduced to very low levels within decades.


Figure 1: Commercial exploitation of Southern Ocean marine resources. ‘Limited harvest’ denotes a restricted harvest in seal and whale stocks, reduced harvesting for krill or an exploratory squid fishery. Source: Fallon (work in progress)

Harvesting continued into the nineteenth century when hunters discovered seal stocks on the South Shetland Islands in 1819/20 (Agnew and Nicol 1996). By 1825, most populations of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic fur seals were on the verge of extinction, and it was not until the 1930s and later that numbers began to increase due to additional krill availability and/or species recovery from earlier exploitation. Sealing ceased at South Georgia in 1964 when the land-based whaling industry with which it was associated collapsed (McElroy 1984). The last known sealing in the Antarctic was conducted by Soviet hunters in 1986/87 (Constable 2002).



Elephant seals (Photo: © L. Fallon)
A Dwarf Sperm Whale can be identified by its characteristic blowhole, which is angled forwards. (Photo: © F. Ritter)

In the nineteenth century, southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina), southern right whales and some sub-Antarctic penguins were also hunted (Kock 1994). Although birds have not been commercially exploited in the Southern Ocean, sub-Antarctic penguins have been taken for oil in a few cases. For example, King penguins (Aptenodytes patagonicus) and Crested penguins (Eudyptes spp.) were exploited for food, cooking and cosmetic oil, and as fuel for fire on sub-Antarctic islands such as South Georgia, Heard and Macquarie.


Other seal species including Crabeater (Lobodon carcinophagus), Weddell (Leptonychotes weddellii), Leopard (Hydrurga leptonyx) and Ross seals (Ommatophoca rossii) were taken regularly in small numbers to feed dog teams or during exploratory sealing in the pack ice (CCAMLR 2002).


Commercial whaling was initiated in 1892 with Norwegian and British reconnaissance expeditions, and started in December 1904 at Grytviken on South Georgia by an Argentine-Norwegian expedition (Agnew and Nicol 1996; McElroy 1984; Tonnessen and Jonse 1982). Within 10 years, it expanded to the more southerly islands of the Scotia Arc and to the Kerguelen Islands.


In the twentieth century whaling of all seven species or subspecies of baleen whales (rorquals) and toothed whale (Physeter macrocephalus) began. Whaling was land-based until the early 1920s, with processing taking place either at shore stations or alongside factory vessels moored in sheltered fjords and bays (CCAMLR 2002). It then became an offshore (or pelagic) operation and went beyond the scope of national jurisdictions from 1925, when factory vessels began to be fitted with stern slipways. Pelagic mother ship/catcher operations became the most common type of whaling, and the number of mother ships and catcher vessels increased rapidly. Commercial whaling stopped in 1982 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) adopted a moratorium on whale harvesting (Dodds 2000).


Fishing for finfish and krill began around the late 1960s. However, the expansion of the krill fishery threatened the marine ecosystem and this fishery was the first to characterise the nature of possible future exploitation of marine species (Nicol and de la Mare 1993). An exploratory fishing for crabs and squid in the 1990s has also developed.







Agnew, D.J. and Nicol, S. (1996). Marine disturbances: Commercial fishing. Foundation for Ecological Research West of the Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctic Research Series, 70, 417-435.


CCAMLR (2002). Understanding CCAMLR’s approach to management. Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), Hobart, Australia, Accessed 26 November 2002.


Constable, A.J. (2002). The status of Antarctic fisheries research. In Jabour-Green, J. and Haward, M. (eds), The Antarctic: Past, present and future, Antarctic CRC Research Report No 28, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Australia, 71-84.


Dodds, K. (2000). Geopolitics, Patagonian toothfish and living resource regulation in the Southern Ocean. Third World Quarterly, 21(2), 229-246, Accessed 1 August 2002.


Fallon, L.D. (work in progress). The role of state and non-state actors in the management of Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides). Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania.


Kock, K-H. (1994). Fishing and conservation in southern waters. Polar Record, 30(172), 3-22.


Kriwoken, L.K. and Williamson, J.W. (1993). Hobart, Tasmania: Antarctic and Southern Ocean connections. Polar Record, 169, 93-102.


McElroy, J.K. (1984). Antarctic fisheries: history and prospects. Marine Policy, July 1984, 239-257.


Nicol, S. and de la Mare, W.K. (1993). Ecosystem management and the Antarctic krill. American Scientist, 81, 36-47.


Stonehouse, B. (ed.) (2002). Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans. Scott Polar Research Institute, John Wiley and Sons Ltd, Chichester, UK.


Tonnessen, J.N. and Jonhsen, A.O. (1982). The history of modem whaling. Hurst/Australian National University, London, UK.


Walton, D.W. (1987). Antarctic Science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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