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2014 Antarctica Regional Assessment

The Antarctica region includes its continental coastline, the 10th longest  in the world (17,968 km  ;11,165 mi), and the surrounding Southern Ocean (excluding territorial EEZs of islands located within it), which covers 20.33 million sq. km (7.85 million sq mi.). Using the The International Whaling Commission (IWC) breakdown of six management regions, the Antarctica Regional Ocean Health Index scored each one for eight applicable goals and sub-goals of the Index:  Food Production, Coastal Protection, Livelihoods & Economies, Tourism & Recreation, Sense of Place, Clean Waters and Biodiversity. Two goals, Artisnal Fishing Opportunities and Carbon Storage do not apply in the region and are not scored.

Below are the results for the region:

        OVERALL SCORE: 72

  • Food production (Fisheries): 55
  • Fisheries: 55
  • Natural Products: 29
  • Coastal protection: 99
  • Tourism & Recreation: 55
  • Livelihoods & Economies: 83
  •  Sense of Place: 46:
  •                 - Iconinc Species: 90
  •                 - Lasting Special Places: 1
  • Clean Waters: 100
  • Biodiversity: 94:
  •                  - Species: 88
  •                  - Habitats: 100

Summary of Scores

An area-weighted average of the scores for each goal in each region produced overall scores for each Antarctica goal.  Those goal scores were averaged to produce the score for Antarctica, 72.  As in the global Index, all scores are on a scale of 0 to 100.  Low scores for Natural Products (29), Food Production (55) and Tourism (55) are part of the reason Antarctica doesn’t score higher, but the largest single factor dragging the score down is Lasting Special Places, which only scored 1.  Score explanations and highlights are described below.

Because Antarctica has no mariculture, wild caught Fisheries is the only component of this goal and it scored 55.  The four species making up the bulk of the fishery are the mackerel ice-fish, the Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish, and krill (which is included in natural products since it is mainly for purposes other than direct human consumption.) Fisheries do not appear to be harming populations now, but stocks of some species have not recovered from previous overfishing.  Toothfish are long-lived slow-growing species vulnerable to overfishing and require very careful management.  Management has improved over time. Fisheries by-catch killed many albatrosses and other seabirds in past decades, but improved procedures and gear modifications to long-lines have reduced much of that damage.  However, fishing still has an impact in the region, because some new fisheries are authorized as ‘experimental’, but with little knowledge on which to base impact assessments. Also, illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries (IUUs), which were rampant in the 1990s, still persist in the region, escaping the control of local fishing management. Southern bluefin tuna is critically endangered and declining.

This goal scored 29.  Krill (Euphausia superb) is the only natural product harvested in Antarctica.  Since the catch is used mainly for oil, animal or aquaculture food, bait or as ingredients in non-food preparations, it is considered a non-food product and evaluated in this goal rather than Food Provision. About 100,000 tons are harvested annually, mostly by South Korea, Norway, Japan and Poland.  The catch is smaller than the historical fishery that Russia carried out in the 1980s and 1990s. The catch is also small compared to the size of the krill population, which may exceed 500 million tons, with some schools said to cover hundreds of square kilometers, large enough to be visible from space.  Since krill is the foundation of the entire Southern Ocean food web, its management deserves great care, especially since populations may be in a long-term decline.  The reference point used for maximum sustainable catch of krill is based on the stock assessment used for the species in Antarctica and it accounts for the needs of the wild species that depend on krill in their diet.  The low score indicates that more krill could be sustainably harvested without harming the Antarctic system.  

The high goal for this score, 99, results from effective protection of Antarctica’s shoreline by sea ice.  No other protective habitats are present.

Antarctica hosts no livelihoods so this goal is represented only by its Economy (jobs and revenue) component, using fishing and tourism crew data for Antarctica. The status was calculated by dividing the current revenue for fishing and tourism by their values from five years ago.  The score was 83.

Antarctica is an unusual place, because all economic activity is by people coming from abroad to visit or to capture living resources. Revenue is incorporated in this study as a measure of how Antarctica is contributing to people's economic wealth, and whether this is increasing or declining.  The jobs and revenue produced in the Antarctic region will also be incorporated into the Livelihoods and Economies goal of the countries where boats and crew originate, where it will usually form a very small part of overall revenue, so capturing this measure in two places will not create serious bias.

This goal scored 55.  To calculate it, the Index took advantage of data available on the actual number of tourists visiting and the number of days they spent. Calculation of the goal score also took into account access to tourist locations (which was determined as 100%) and a measure of sustainable tourism density comparable to the median tourist density observed across the world’s coastal countries in 2009.  

 This goal, which scored 46, evaluates the ocean’s intangible benefits to cultural, traditional, spiritual and aesthetic values, and is represented by two subgoals, Lasting Special Places and Iconic Species.  

This subgoal focuses on geographic locations that hold particular value for aesthetic, spiritual, cultural, recreational or existence reasons.  Lists of such places do not exist for inhabited countries, let alone a nearly uninhabited continent, so as a proxy measure the Index assumes that these special places are represented by areas protected for other reasons.  The target is for 30% of both nearshore waters (out to 3 nm) and the coastline (shore to 1 km inland) to be protected.  Only a tiny portion of Antarctica’s nearshore waters and coastline is protected, so its Lasting Special Places score was only 1.  That very low score is the main reason why the Sense of Place goal scored so low.

This subgoal scored 90.  Thirty-five (35) iconic species were assessed, including 9 whales, five seals, four sharks and the region’s major species of penguins and seabirds.  Species are listed at https://github.com/OHI-Science/ohiprep/blob/master/Antarctica/AQ_ICO/supplement/AQ_iconics.csv.

Their populations had been formally assessed by the IUCN Red-Listing process conducted by the Global Marine Species Assessment and the Global Mammal Assessment which, among other things, evaluates the risk of extinction and whether their numbers are  increasing, stable or decreasing.  The target is to have all species at ‘Least Concern’ for risk of extinction.

Four of the species are categorized as ‘endangered’, 4 are ‘near threatened’, 6 are ‘vulnerable’ and 21 are ‘least concern.’  Seven (7) of the populations are decreasing, 8 are increasing, 7 are stable and 13 have unknown trends. 

The iconic specis categorized as ‘endangered’ are Black-browed albatross, Blue whale, Finback whale and  Sei whale.

Some populations appear to be increasing, others decreasing. A number of species, especially whales and seals were historically overexploited, but are now protected and probably recovering. The Antarctic region spans a broad and varied geographical range, with part experiencing increasing sea-ice while sea-ice is shrinking elsewhere. Both the expanse and differing sub-regional responses to climate make it difficult to assess populations.


The fact that this goal scored 100 mainly reflects Antarctica’s is geographic isolation from most sources of contamination by chemicals, excessive nutrients, pathogens and trash.  Direct in-water measurements of those factors are not available, so proxy measurements are used.  Diffusion models estimate chemical and nutrient contamination, but only minimal amounts arrive at Antarctica owing to its great distance from human population centers, agricultural centers and rivers. Winds likely convey small amounts of chemical pollution to the area, but probably not enough to affect water quality. 

Human habitation of Antarctica is so low that the concentration of human pathogens in the water from that source is almost nil.  Some countries carefully manage human wastes at their Antarctic stations, but wastes are still disposed at sea in some locations.  Voiding of human wastes from fishing boats, cruise ships or other vessels working in the Southern Ocean could also introduce such pathogens. Since people are rarely in contact with those waters, human infection would be rare.  Consequently this regional assessment assumed that no pathogen contamination currently affects humans.  However, the spread of any new pathogens to Antarctic wildlife is of great concern, so limiting or eliminating any sources of human or non-human pathogens is important.  

Trash analysis used the global reference point of zero trash with local data on beached trash at a few sites that are published in some CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) reports.  There is very little trash, especially compared to other parts of the world, but it is more than a supposedly pristine area should have.  The fact that only two percent of its area is ice free exacerbates Antarctica’s trash problem, because those few places have been heavily used for decades for scientific or other kinds of bases on the continent and its surrounding islands.  Today, many countries make serious (and expensive) efforts to treat and control wastes in their current operations, but clean up may not always be perfect and, in addition, a legacy of old machinery, disused buildings and other items litter beaches or other areas.  There is debate about whether some items constitute trash or historical artifacts.

BIODIVERSITY: The Biodiversity goal, which scored 94, is represented by two subgoals, Habitats and Species. 

The only habitat assessed was floating sea-ice, which scored 100. Other important sub-tidal habitats are present, but data to assess them are not available. Floating sea ice forms and reforms seasonally and is different from the enormous ice shelves anchored to the Antarctic continent that fringe 75% of its coastline and cover an area exceeding 1.56 million sq. km.  Modeling sea-ice is very complicated as many parameters must be considered, including its extent, thickness and species-specific effects of change in the sea-ice habitat or changes in the timing of its formation and melting.  Some species are sensitive to the extent of the ice edge, others to the overall area of the ice pack, others to thickness of the ice or overall duration of winter ice. Owing to the difficulty of capturing that complexity in a model, a simple measure was used for 2014, with plans to create a more comprehensive model in the future.

This subgoal scored 88.  One hundred thirty two (132) species that have been assessed by the IUCN Red-Listing process conducted by the Global Marine Species Assessment and the Global Mammal Assessment were included in the evaluation. As in Iconic Species, the target is to have all species at ‘Least Concern’ for risk of extinction, a category which 94 of them achieved. However, 2 species are classified as ‘critically endangered’, 7 are ‘endangered’, 14 are vulnerable and 15 are near threatened.  The list of species used and their status is found at https://github.com/OHI-Science/ohiprep/blob/master/Antarctica/AQ_SPP/data.

 The two ‘critically endangered’ species are Southern big-eye tuna and  Tristan albatross; and the seven ‘endangered’ species are: Blue, Finback and Sei whales; Black-browed albatross, Northern royal albatross, Sooty albatross and Indian yellow-nosed albatross.  Six of those populations are decreasing.  Blue whales are increasing, trends for Finback and Sei whales are unknown and the other six species are decreasing.  Of the remaining species, 32 are decreasing, 10 are increasing, 29 are stable and 51 have unknown population trends.

A number of species, especially whales and seals were historically overexploited, but are now protected and probably recovering. The Antarctic region spans a broad and varied geographical range, with part experiencing increasing sea-ice while sea-ice is shrinking elsewhere. Both the expanse and differing sub-regional responses to climate make it difficult to assess populations.

For much of the past decade, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which oversees fish and wildlife populations, has been considering proposals to create two huge marine protected areas where fishing would be prohibited, a 1.3 million sq. km reserve in the Ross Sea and a 1.6 million sq. km reserve in East Antarctica.  At the annual meeting in 2013, CCAMLR delegates from 24 nations and the European Union failed to reach agreement to establish those reserves.   Establishing those reserves would benefit Antarctica’s wildlife and economic species.  It would likely raise Ocean Health Index scores for Species Biodiversity as well as Iconic Species and Fisheries.  However, since the reserves are farther than 3 km offshore, their establishment would not improve the very low Lasting Special Places score.  Raising the Lasting Special Places score would require separate measures to protect nearshore waters and coastline.