Threats to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean

Until recently, the region’s inhospitable climate protected it from the worst excesses of human exploitation. But that has changed during the past few decades and now Antarctica and the Southern Ocean waters are under threat.


Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing
Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing in the Southern Ocean threatens fish stocks in some areas of the Southern Ocean and the seabirds and marine mammals that depend upon them. The harmful fishing methods used by IUU fishing vessels cause horrendous damage to bird populations. Albatross and other seabirds swoop down to feed on the bait used by illegal long liners, become hooked through their bills, and drown.

Invasive species
Many Antarctic species have evolved in isolation from the rest of the world. Consequently, they have developed no means of defending themselves from the invasive species carried aboard ships. Rats are a particular danger and large numbers occur on islands that support seabird breeding colonies throughout the region. Feeding on chicks and eggs, the rats are devastating populations of albatross, petrel and other threatened species.

Marine pollution
The Southern Ocean has become a dumping ground for rubbish and the amount of debris increased 100-fold during the 1990s. Discarded plastic, fishing nets and hooks are causing the slow and painful death of thousands of mammals and birds each year. Small whales, seals and many other species are ingesting, choking or becoming ensnared on this rubbish, contributing to a decline in their numbers.

Climate change
Climate change is the greatest long-term threat to the region. With some parts of Antarctica experiencing significant ice retreat and collapse of ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula, there can no longer be any doubt that the Antarctic is getting warmer. If the climate continues to warm, scientists predict that krill populations could be devastated, undermining the entire southern polar food chain.