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Global sustainability and the Southern Ocean

Sustainability is an ethic of engagement related to questions of how to live and it is a set of substantive and procedural guidelines about managing our activities on the biosphere (Stratford in press). It is about ecological integrity, economic security, social well-being, and empowerment and responsibility (Institute for Sustainable Communities 2000). Its historical context is well-known, deriving from local, regional, national and international concerns about such matters as deforestation, desertification or the seas and oceans; about globalization, economic rationalism and resource distribution; and about health, well-being and sense of community.


In particular, certain principles of sustainability have been enshrined in international conventions such as Agenda 21 (United Nations 1992) or in national strategies for sustainable development, such as that formalised in the Australian Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment, dating from 1992. These principles are (i) integration, (ii) public participation, (iii) intra- and inter-generational equity, (iv) precaution, (v) continual improvement, and (vi) the maintenance of diversity [and here we mean cultural as well as biological or geological diversity (Stratford and Davidson 2002)].


The principles of sustainability have been underpinned by a widespread decade-long commitment to the ‘triple bottom line’ model of sustainable development. This model is one that policy analysts, politicians, industry and community interests have adopted in rhetorical terms, but found less amenable to robust and resilient implementation on the ground.


Sustainability and the Patagonian Toothfish?

The Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) fishery is characterized by uncertainty. The status of this species and stock assessments cannot be precisely determined. In addition, trade figures are inconclusive given that illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) catch figures are difficult to verify.


Given that commercial extinction for toothfish species is estimated at less than 5 years (WWF 2002), this species and threatened seabird and byctach populations may not survive unless governments, Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the fishing industry, non-government organisation (NGOs) and consumers direct continued vigilance against IUU practises.


Despite the innovations introduced by the CCAMLR Commission, IUU Patagonian toothfish fishing continues unbaited. At its most recent meeting in Hobart in 2002, the CCAMLR Commission expressed concern that IUU fishing will increase the potential for catastrophic and precipitous declines in stock biomass if it is not brought under control.


The CCAMLR Commission must be commended on achieving the consensus necessary to introduce conservation measures, the 2001 International Plan of Action (IPOA), Catch Documentation Scheme (CDS) and establishing a blacklist of vessels engaged in IUU fishing. Nevertheless the recently proposed CITES listing for Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish under Appendix II in late 2002 was strongly opposed by the majority of CCAMLR members at the twenty-first CCAMLR Commission meeting because they considered that it undermined the CDS and CCAMLR’s competency (CCAMLR 2002; WWF 2002). Australia subsequently withdrew its proposal on this issue at the following CITES (COP12) meeting in Chile (Kemp 2002).


Considering that the current levels of illegal harvesting in the Patagonian toothfish fishery are unsustainable, the CCAMLR Commission and national governments regard that effective management and regulation of this resource is critical to ensure its survival (Agnew 2000). However, the Commission and national governments need to assess all options for improving the effectiveness of management of the species, particularly with regard to the wider implications of sustainability pertaining to changing cultural norms and practises that legitimise unlimited harvesting and mass consumption. In addition, the Commission needs to utilize other international instruments, including conventions and codes of practise, to support its own conservation measures and ensure that the potential of all initiatives to address IUU fishing are realised.


Sustainability of the Southern Ocean fisheries?

The conservation of marine ecosystems may be considered in terms of intrinsic and instrumental values. These ecosystems are of value in and of themselves, irrespective of their social, environmental or economic significance to people. But it is the instrumental worth of marine ecosystems that tends to inform conservation practice and issues of governance in the Southern Ocean case. Clearly, in instrumental terms, it is important to ensure the long-term maintenance of marine ecosystems for enjoyment, inspiration and wealth (Ward 2000). Their structures and functions should be maintained as closely possible to their undisturbed state, and suffer neither irreversible effects from continued use nor negative effects that prevent adaptation to natural pressures.


In instrumental terms, sustaining marine ecosystems involves making judgements about how marine resources might be used, and accepting the notion of limits. However, use values cannot be based on technical or ecological knowledge alone and it is important to understand issues of supply and demand, production and consumption, and how these systems put pressure on individuals and groups to act in ways that do not respect limits or that jeopardise ecosystems.


Biophysical, socio-economic and cultural implications of the use of Southern Ocean resources and habitats are important and, together, they set the political climate within which ecosystem/human system management strategies need to operate (Fallon work in progress). Therefore, sustainability processes and outcomes depend on management and policy decisions that are adaptive and responsive to the unpredictability of ecosystems and socio-economic conditions. As a result, the sustainability of marine ecosystems is as much about social, cultural and economic considerations as it is about ecology, population dynamics and conservation.


The dilemmas posed by the conservation of the Patagonian toothfish and Southern Ocean resources and values affect each of the principles of sustainability. At a minimum, the maintenance of the species and of the diversity of its habitat requires vertical and horizontal integration of policy; the exercise of precaution; and high levels of ecological literacy and knowledge. This requirement is not abstract, but materially affects politicians, bureaucrats and the judiciary; commercial fishing operations and related industries; NGOs; fishing communities; scientists; and consumers. It also demands public participation in decision-making at various levels of government and governance, and at various spatial scales.


Significantly, the oceans and high seas belong to the commons. Hence, the task will be to move from ideas of ownership by communities of interest narrowly circumscribed by sovereignty or association with business, to ownership as stewardship – the idea of caring for regions that are common property for the benefit of humanity in its entirety and for the benefit of non-human nature and the ecosystems on which its members depend.






Agnew, D.J. (2000). The illegal and unregulated fishery for toothfish in the Southern Ocean, and the CCAMLR catch documentation scheme. Marine Policy, 24, 361-374.


CCAMLR (2002). Report of the twenty-first meeting of the Commission. Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), Hobart, Australia.


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.


Institute for Sustainable Communities (2000). Accessed November 2002.


Kemp, D. (2002). Australia champions marine species protection at international conference. Media Release 19 November 2002, Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, Australia.


Stratford, E. (in press). Tasmania Together and the rhetoric of island and development: Latent opportunities for agonism and innovation, World Development.


Stratford, E. and Davidson, J. (2002). Capital assets and intercultural borderlands: socio-cultural challenges for natural resource management. Journal of Environmental Management, 64, 1-12.


United Nations (1992). United Nations Conference on Environment and Development – Agenda 21. Accessed November 2002.


Ward, T.J. (2000). Indicators for assessing the sustainability of Australia's marine ecosystems. Marine Freshwater Research, 51, 435-446.


WWF (2002). Illegal trade will continue to decimate toothfish populations. Media Release 14 November 2002, World Wildlife Fund Australia, Sydney, Australia.


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