Just as the Russian vessel Akademik Shokalskiy and the Chinese vessel sent to rescue it were finally dislodged from the ice after being stuck since Christmas Eve, three fishing vessels have followed a United States icebreaker deep into the Ross Sea to access ice-choked fishing grounds that would otherwise be impossible for their vessels to penetrate.
The height of summer in the Antarctic brings the peak research, tourist, and fishing season, yet the temperatures are still usually well below freezing and the ice conditions remain unpredictable and often treacherous. Despite the increasing frequency of vessel accidents in the Antarctic, there are currently no regulations to ensure that vessels venturing into the Southern Ocean are fit to endure the harsh and icy conditions.
The Akademik Shokalskiy was an oceanographic research vessel that had been ice-strengthened, but with no ice-breaking capacity. The Chinese “rescue” vessel Xue Long had been ice-strengthened with capacity for cutting through a few feet of ice. But only icebreakers, like the United States Polar Star that was sent to rescue the Russian and Chinese vessels, have the ability to crush through thicker ice, granting them the capacity to truly navigate the more southern Antarctic waters.
Since the start of a fishery for toothfish in the Ross Sea, Antarctica in the mid-1990s, long-line fishing boats, which are not required to be icebreakers or even ice-strengthened, would follow leads in the ice broken by icebreakers like the United States Nathaniel B. Palmer to access fishing grounds that would otherwise be impossible for them to reach. Rumors suggest that the vessel captains would strike deals in the New Zealand port town bars to trade toothfish (lucratively sold on the market as “Chilean Sea Bass”) for a passage into the ice.
Nowadays, no such agreements are made, but fishing vessels, many of which are hardly seaworthy, still follow vessels like the Palmer deep into the ice. Scientists aboard the Palmer reported that three fishing long-liners, the Korean Kostar and Sunstar and the Russian Yantar 31, have followed them into the ice earlier this week.
Meanwhile long-liners in the Ross Sea have repeatedly proved their inability to safely navigate these ice-choked waters. The sinking of the Korean fishing vessel In Sung No. 1 in 2010 left 22 dead. The Russian vessel Sparta struck ice in 2011, flooding water into its punctured hull.
And just two years ago, the Korean fishing vessel Jeong Woo 2 caught fire, killing three. The crew had to be rescued by the Palmer, which happened to be in the vicinity.
Conducting Antarctic research takes an incredible amount of time, energy and money to plan for and carry out. Many scientists spend years preparing and each day at sea is an invaluable opportunity to collect data, which is why when we are at sea we work 12-16 hour days, sometimes more. In the United States, Antarctic scientists have suffered under the current economy with fewer and fewer research projects funded, not to mention the repercussions of the recent federal shutdown which devastated this year’s Antarctic field season.
Yet if any of these three fishing vessels currently following the Palmer through the thick ice of the Ross Sea becomes stuck, then the scientists aboard the icebreaker must halt their science, losing critical research and money since the Palmer costs roughly $55,000/day to operate. Since the icebreaker is a National Science Foundation vessel, this means that U.S. tax dollars are incidentally facilitating fishing vessels to travel deeper in the ice than they should to catch a fish that is only affordable by the wealthy.
Currently, there are no rules to prevent fishing vessels from following the paths cut in the ice by icebreakers. Further, international efforts are underway to strengthen vessel standards in the Arctic and Antarctic to reduce the number of accidents, but it is currently unclear if these rules will apply to the fishing industry at some future date. In the Ross Sea in particular, hundreds of scientists have actually petitioned to keep fishing out of the region, which is considered to be one of the most pristine large ocean ecosystems left on the planet.
Whether these protections or new standards will be adopted soon remains to be seen. But until they are, and with the Antarctic summer still upon us, we can count on more vessels being stuck in the ice.