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Antarctic Treaty Nations To Meet

January 22, 1999

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ For the first time, delegates from nations involved in determining the future of Antarctica plan to meet on the frozen continent, a sign of how Antarctica is becoming more accessible _ and more vulnerable _ to the rest of the world.

Delegates and ministers from most of the 26 nations that have signed the Antarctic Treaty are due to fly Monday to New Zealand’s Scott Base, a clutch of mint-green, one-story buildings huddled on the Ross Sea coast.

There, they will spend two days discussing environmental problems, fishing disputes and the boom in tourism.

The most pressing and dramatic issue is not on the mainland, however, but in the Southern Ocean, where at least 70 illegal fishing ships are plundering the toothfish catch.

``The challenge comes predominantly from modern day pirates who seek to pillage the resources of the area with no concern for the environmental damage they cause,″ Australian Environment Minister Robert Hill said before heading to Antarctica.

One illegal vessel threatened to ram a licensed New Zealand fishing boat and legal Australian ships have also been menaced.

Australia and France have used warships to detain some boats in the Antarctic waters they control, and Britain has sent patrol boats to chase others away from around South Georgia Island. New Zealand is flying air force reconnaissance planes over the Ross Sea and is considering dispatching a frigate.

But the illegal fishing continues and the stakes are high. The illegal vessels are making $500 million a year hauling in 110,000 tons of toothfish, twice the amount of the legal catch, marine authorities say.

About 80 percent of the illegally fished stock is unloaded in Mauritius. Some 75 percent goes to Japan and the remainder to the United States.

At the Antarctic Treaty meeting, Australia will push for an internationally monitored catch certification system.

``If the plunder continues, the world will lose a valuable natural and economic resource,″ Hill warned. Satellite vessel monitoring would help identify boats fishing illegally, he added.

Greenpeace has sent its ship MV Arctic Sunrise to look for illegal fishing ships to dramatize the issue.

``This meeting of ministers must, as a matter of urgency, take action to rectify this massive problem,″ Greenpeace spokeswoman Cristina Mormorunni said Friday from aboard the Arctic Sunrise.

Last year, new provisions in the Antarctic treaty declaring a moratorium on mining and petroleum exploration came into force, but offshore exploitation, such as the toothfish poaching, remains unaddressed.

In addition to the environmental challenges facing the continent, delegates will also discuss historic sites, science and tourism _ which brings 15,000 people a year to Antarctica, mostly from cruise ships that fly helicopters inland.

Delegates plan to visit historic huts built by expeditions under Robert F. Scott and Ernest Shackleton in the heroic era of Antarctic exploration.

They will also visit Italian scientists at their Terra Nova Bay base, New Zealand scientists at Scott Base, and American and other international scientists at Antarctica’s metropolis of McMurdo Station, which grows to a population of 1,200 in the southern hemisphere summer.

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