Antarctica: Fishing

In recent years, highly sophisticated boats, GPS systems, sea-floor mapping and up-to-the-minute weather information have allowed us to exploit the Antarctic's waters in an unprecedented way.

NZ’s claim to the Ross Sea

James Ross claimed Victoria Land and the Ross Sea for Britain when he discovered them in 1841. In 1923 the British government defined its current borders and entrusted it to the administration of New Zealand. 

Currently, seven countries – Argentina, Chile, UK, Norway, Australia, France and NZ - have laid claims to territorial sovereignty, and the US and Russia assert a basis for doing so.

However, several other countries that make no claims of sovereignty fish in the area. 

Fishing in the Antarctic is controlled under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which has 34 signatories from Peru to Vanuatu.

This convention has been effective at stopping unwanted sea-bird catches (bycatch) and the discharge of offal from vessels.

It has been less effective, however, in placing protections around slow-growing fish such as Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish, or Chilean sea bass.

Each year, NZ vessels plough the waters for this deep-sea fish, taking home around 100,000 fish, despite the fact that scientists know very little about their life-cycle and breeding habits.

Initially scientists thought these fish reached sexual maturity at eight years. That has now been put at 16 years, raising concern about the fishing industry’s ability to wipe out the breeding population.

Marine Laboratory 

The Ross Sea is home to a quarter of all emperor penguins, minke whales, giant sea spiders, metre long worms and fish that contain a special kind of anti-freeze. In 2008, a study of the world’s oceans by 20 international scientists placed the Ross Sea as one of the most pristine marine environments. Since then, there have been calls to keep this last undisturbed environment protected – however repealing existing fishing laws will be difficult.

Since New Zealand started fishing the Ross Sea in 1996, scientists have seen a virtual disappearance of the Ross Sea orca that prey on toothfish, which is troubling.

Large American supermarket chains such as Wegmans have banned this fish from their shelves, and the world’s largest container ship operator, Maersk, is reviewing its transport policy for this fish because of its questionable sustainability.

Forest & Bird monitors the situation in the Antarctic and encourages greater protection of this untouched area. One of our best advocacy tools is found in the kitchen - Forest & Bird's Best Fish Guide. Fish consumers and restaurants (such as Wellington's Logan Brown) are using it to choose the most sustainably caught fish.