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Large-scale commercial marine harvesting

RSV Aurora Australis in the Southern Ocean (Photo: © L. Fallon)
Rough weather onboard RSV Aurora Australis (Photo: © C. Materia-Rowland)

During the 1960s fishers became interested in Southern Oceans finfish and krill. The main species that are being, or have been, harvested are described below.


Krill harvesting began in the late 1960s, and a commercial fishery started in the 1972/73 season among Soviet and Japanese fleets (Rothwell 1998; Nicol and Endo 1997; Nicol and de la Mare 1993; McElroy 1984). The main fishing grounds are to the east of South Georgia, around the South Orkney Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, and off the north coast of the South Shetland Islands (CCAMLR 2002). Catches dropped substantially in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.


Finfishing dates back to the early days of land-based whaling at South Georgia in 1906 (Kock 1994). Substantial exploitation began in 1969 when Soviet and other Eastern Bloc fishing operations expanded and targeted the bottom dwelling Marbled rockcod (Notothenia rossii), and the shallow dwelling Mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari) in the South Atlantic, particularly around South Georgia and the Kerguelen Islands (Constable 2002; Kock 1994; Kock et al. 1985). In two years from 1969, the Marbled rockcod had almost disappeared from around South Georgia and by the end of 1980 this species was depleted throughout the Southern Ocean.


It is estimated that downwards trends in fish stocks primarily reflect large-scale harvesting impacts and, of the 270 known Southern Ocean species, 12 species are being, or have been, subject to commercial exploitation (Agnew 1997; Kock and Shimadzu 1994). By the late 1970s, many fish stocks had been overexploited and were unable to sustain further harvesting.


Today, the most important Southern Ocean fisheries are located along the Scotia Arc, Ob and Lena Seamounts, Crozet Islands and the Kerguelen Plateau (Knox 1994; Agnew 1997; Agnew and Phegan 1995). Two main species are currently exploited – the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and Mackerel icefish. An exploratory pot fishery for crabs is a very recent development in waters around South Georgia and Shag Rocks. There are also potentially large squid fisheries directly north of the Southern Ocean, such as those on the Patagonian and New Zealand shelves and around South Georgia.


The main species that are being, or have been, harvested in the Southern Ocean are described in Table 1.



Table 1: The main marine species harvested in the Southern Ocean

Species Distribution Size, Age, Weight, Biology Exploitation, Status
Antarctic Krill (Euphausia superba) Circum-Antarctic in Antarctic surface waters to 100 km south of the Antarctic Convergence. Size 64 mm, age 6-7 years. Harvesting started in 1972/73 and peaked in 1981/82. Annual catches are currently estimated at 90.000 to 100.000 t.
Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) Widely distributed to 3000 m, from the slope waters off Chile and Argentina, around South Africa and New Zealand, to the islands and banks in the sub-Antarctic waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. Southernmost records are for the South Orkney and South Sandwich islands. Size up to 238 cm, age estimates for individuals larger than 100 to 120 cm are scarce, however, individuals are likely to be at least 40-50 years, weight up to 130 kg. Matures at 70-95 cm when they are 6 to 9 years old. Since 1996, longlining has expanded rapidly into the slope waters of previously unfished islands, banks and seamounts in the Indian and Pacific Ocean sectors. Estimated catches from unregulated and illegal fishing exceeded those from regulated fishing by a factor of 5:1.
Mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari) This shallow-water coastal species (to 350 m) is found along the Scotia Arc from Shag Rocks and South Georgia in the north, to the Antarctic Peninsula in the south, around Bouvet Island and on the Kerguelen–Heard Plateau. Size 60-66 cm in the Scotia Arc region, 45 cm on the Kerguelen–Heard Plateau, age 12-15 years at South Georgia, 5-6 years at Kerguelen–Heard Plateau. Matures in 3 years at South Georgia and the Kerguelen Islands, and in 4-5 years in the southern Scotia Arc region. Spawning in coastal waters from February to July in the Atlantic Ocean, and from April to September in the Indian Ocean. A major trawl fishery targeted species for 15-20 years after Marbled rockcod stocks were depleted. South Orkney and South Shetland Islands fisheries ended in the early 1980s.
Marbled rockcod (Notothenia rossii) Widely distributed around the Antarctic Peninsula and the Scotia Arc, off Prince Edward, Crozet, Kerguelen, Heard, and Macquarie islands, and on Ob and Lena Banks. Size 85-92 cm, age 15-20 years, weight 8-10 kg. Matures in 5-7 years, spawns from April to June at South Georgia, and in June to July near the Kerguelen Islands. Target species in the late 1960s to early 1970s around South Georgia and the Kerguelen Islands where catches exceeded 100.000 t in some seasons.
Grey rockcod (Lepidonotothen squamifrons) Circum-Antarctic distribution to 800 m around the sub-Antarctic islands and seamounts that lie between them. Size 50-55 cm, age 16-20 years, weight 2-3 kg. Matures in 5-9 years at South Georgia and the Kerguelen Islands. Spawns from October to February. Exploited commercially off the Kerguelen Islands and Ob and Lena Banks. French authorities closed the Kerguelen Islands fishery in the early 1990s and CCAMLR* closed the Ob and Lena Banks fisheries in the early 1990s.
Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) Extends to about 800 m and confined to the waters around the Antarctic continent with a northern limit at about 60°S. Size 180 cm, age 22-30 years, weight 75 kg. Matures at about 70-95 cm, spawn in August to September. Targeted since 1996/97 by a number of new and exploratory fisheries. The exploratory fisheries are regulated by CCAMLR* Commission.
Patagonian rockcod (Patagonotothen guntheri) Found to 350 m mainly on the southern Argentine Patagonian shelf, and off the Falkland/Islas Malvinas and Shag Rocks. Size 23 cm, age 6 years. Matures at about 12-16 cm, spawns from September to October. Exploited in the Shag Rocks area from 1978/79 to 1989/90 and the fishery was closed by CCAMLR* after the stock was depleted. The current status of the stock is unknown.

*Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) Commission

Source: Fallon (work in progress): Adapted from CCAMLR 2002; Kock 1992






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Agnew, D.J. and Phegan, G. (1995). A fine-scale model of the overlap between penguin foraging demands and the krill fishery in the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula. CCAMLR Science, 2, 99-110.


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


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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. (1992). Antarctic fish and fisheries. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.


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


Kock, K-H., Duhamel, G. and Hureau, J.C. (1985). Biology and status of exploited Antarctic fish stocks: A review. BIOMASS Scientific Series, 6, 1-143.


Kock, K-H. and Shimadzu, Y. (1994). Trophic relationships and trends in population size and reproduction parameters in Antarctic high-level predators. Southern Ocean Ecology: The BIOMASS perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 287-309.


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.


Nicol, S. and Endo, Y. (1997). Krill fisheries of the world. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Fisheries Technical Paper, 367, p. 100.


Rothwell, D.R. (1998). The Antarctic Treaty System and the Southern Ocean. In Bateman, S., and Rothwell, D.R. (eds), Southern Ocean fishing: Policy challenges for Australia, Centre for Maritime Policy, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia, 5-40.

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