A small number of industries have direct impacts in Antarctica.

Commercial fishing

Antarctica is a productive fishing ground that is used by many countries. Mid-water trawlers and continuous fishing system vessels catch krill, while predominantly longline vessels catch toothfish. There is some bottom trawling in areas of national jurisdiction for toothfish and icefish. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) manages the fisheries in the Convention Area of the Southern Ocean – which is divided into 3 statistical areas, several subareas, divisions and subdivisions (Figure 15) – and sets catch limits for each fishery and each area, open and closed season periods, move-on rules and measures to minimise bycatch. Each vessel eligible to fish commercially participates in a race to obtain as much krill or fish until the total catch limit is reached, and the fishery is closed. CCAMLR allows the allocation of a specific catch for a member in some specific areas to conduct research or exploratory fishing (Reid 2019).

Krill fishing

The Antarctic krill fishery is the largest commercial fishery in the Southern Ocean. However, there is currently no krill fishery off East Antarctica. The krill fishery is concentrated in the South Atlantic Ocean (Statistical Area 48; 3.45 million square kilometres). Most of the catch is taken using a continuous fishing system that pumps krill nonstop from the codend of the net onto the ship, rather than hauling the catch aboard in a net. The continuous fishing system has been employed since 2004 by Norway and more recently by China. CCAMLR sets catch limits for different areas in the Southern Ocean; catch limits vary from 93,000 to up to 279,000 tonnes (t) per managed area. Antarctic krill was first fished at low levels in the 1960s (4 t in 1961–62 and 306 t in 1964–65) as an exploratory fishery (Miller & Agnew 2000). Commercial exploitation began only in late 1973; at this time, annual catches amounted to around 500,000 t of Antarctic krill (Nicol et al. 2012).

The total catch limit for Area 48 (30°E to 70°W) is 5.61 million tonnes. However, since commercial fishing has increasingly concentrated on a much smaller area, targeting only a section of the whole krill population, there were concerns that the concentrated fishing activities would have a disproportionate effect on local krill populations, associated ecosystems and krill-dependent predators. Therefore, in 1991, CCAMLR implemented interim precautionary catch limits for large statistical areas. These ‘trigger limits’ in an area cannot be exceeded until a more elaborate management strategy is established. For Area 48, the trigger limit was set at 620,000 t; this limit will be in place until catch effort can be distributed relative to the total krill population (Reid 2019). An interim measure is currently in place to distribute the trigger limit across the 4 subareas. Since 2015, the fishery in Subarea 48.1 was closed to krill fishing before the end of the fishing season on 3 occasions, because the catch had reached annual trigger limits.

Since 2005, krill catches in Area 48 have steadily increased but have remained below the total catch limit. Since 2013, the catch limit of 155,000 t has been reached in Subarea 48.1, where catches by conventional trawlers were 46% higher in 2019 than in 2008. Vessels with a continuous fishing system can operate in the Antarctic krill fishery. Around 450,000 t is being harvested in total from Area 48. In the 2019–20 CCAMLR fishing season, the krill catch in Area 48 was the highest in the recorded history of the fishery (CCAMLR 2021b).

Off the western Antarctic Peninsula, krill catches have increased over the past 2 decades, particularly in the Gerlache and Bransfield straits. The krill fishery is active during the breeding season of gentoo and chinstrap penguins. The interactions between the fishery and penguins are complex and dependent on environmental conditions. For example, low levels of sea ice can reduce krill recruitment in some years. Furthermore, the SAM index plays a role (see Atmosphere). In years when it is negative, the probability of lowered breeding success increases (see Watters et al. (2020)) Also, the recovery of populations of baleen whales may increase competition for resources (Krüger et al. 2021).

In East Antarctica, krill fishing took place from 1974 to 1995 (Williams 1985, Pauly et al. 2000). After many years of no krill fishing, small krill catches have been taken again since 2017. Krill fishing is likely to intensify in East Antarctica. There is currently a catch limit of 440,000 t in place for Division 58.4.1, split into 2 areas, and a catch limit of 260,000 t for Division 58.4.2 (CCAMLR 2017).

So far, CCAMLR has successfully managed the krill fisheries. The organisation has carefully monitored the quantity of krill caught at any one time (catch capacity), and the quantity of krill that can be taken in a season. However, the development of new technologies and the arrival of new entrants into the fishery must be managed carefully (Nicol & Foster 2016). If the ratio of the catch capacity to total allowable catch is low, it is possible to monitor catches and forecast potential closures. However, as catch limits are being reached faster (e.g. through continuous fishing), it becomes more challenging to make these forecasts and keep fishing activities within the catch limits. Given the large scale over which the fishery operates, it is also challenging to conduct fishery-independent surveys of krill stocks. For example, broadscale surveys in Area 48 have occurred with an interval of 20 years (2000 and 2019) (Trathan et al. 2001, CCAMLR 2019). Developments are underway to involve commercial vessels in collecting data that can support more regular assessments.

The krill fishery may also face challenges associated with the vulnerability of krill to environmental changes, particularly climate change (Kawaguchi et al. 2013). Changes to the marine environment are having a significant impact on krill. Increasing ocean acidification is likely to affect krill embryos negatively and may significantly reduce hatching success (Kawaguchi et al. 2013, Veytia et al. 2020). Since krill is near the base of the food web, these changes may have profound effects throughout Antarctic ecosystems, particularly on dependent predators such as seabirds, seals and whales. The challenge is thus to manage krill fishing while achieving ecosystem-based objectives (Reid 2019).

FIgure 15 CCAMLR statistical reporting area and subarea boundaries, and FAO fishing area boundaries

CCAMLR = Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources; FAO = Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; km = kilometre

Source: Australian Antarctic Data Centre

Fishing for fin fish

The dominant target species of fin fish in Southern Ocean fisheries are toothfish (Dissostichus spp.). The estimated aggregated weights of toothfish caught in 2018 and 2019 were 30,591 t and 30,231 t, respectively. Australia was the second largest producer after France (CCAMLR 2021a). The precautionary approach to fisheries management taken by CCAMLR, with set catch limits and comprehensive regulations in place, is highly unlikely to have a negative effect on Southern Ocean ecosystems. Current levels of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the CCAMLR area are at a historical low. However, the high value of toothfish and the difficulty of comprehensive surveillance of the vast Southern Ocean remain a strong incentive to IUU fishers (see Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing).

In the Southern Ocean, in East Antarctica Divisions 58.4.1 and 58.4.2, commercial fishing operations have remained well below set catch limits because only small-scale, exploratory fisheries currently operate in Division 58.4.2 (Table 8).

In Australian subantarctic waters, commercial fishers harvest Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and, to a lesser extent, mackerel icefish (Champsocephalus gunnari). Australian fishing efforts are concentrated around the subantarctic Heard Island and McDonald Islands, and Macquarie Island. Substantial marine reserves surround both regions. Precautionary catch limits and various other environmental controls apply in accordance with CCAMLR’s conservation measures (see Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources). The toothfish fisheries are relatively small, landing less than 5,000 t per year.

Except in 2015, only 1 vessel has been licensed to catch mackerel icefish at Heard Island since 2007. Catch limits have varied since the inception of this fishery in 1997 due to the high recruitment variability of this species (Maschette & Welsford 2019). For example, the catch limit was 2,980 t in 2003; this has decreased to around 500 t since 2016. In 2020, the vessel landed 507 t, only 20 t short of the year’s catch limit (Table 8) (CCAMLR 2021c).

As the summer sea ice is receding in some areas such as the Antarctic Peninsula, certain regions are becoming more accessible to fishing vessels. Thus, the krill fishery has remained on the fishing grounds later into the autumn and winter (CCAMLR 2021b).

The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) regulates the fishing activities of Australian vessels, consistent with CCAMLR conservation measures. AFMA also manages the fishery around Macquarie Island. Although it falls outside the CCAMLR area, CCAMLR-like procedures apply here as well. Licensed vessels in the subantarctic fisheries show a very high degree of compliance with licence conditions. Based on the best scientific information available, catch limits are adopted through the CCAMLR process, and Australia undertakes regular fish stock assessments for the regions. The tight regulation of fishing permits and the requirement for comprehensive mitigation methods have virtually eliminated seabird bycatch in these regions.

Fishing and other legal or illegal extraction of resources are themselves pressures on the Antarctic environment and its species. Other pressures affecting the fisheries include the impacts of climate change (particularly ocean acidification), and other anthropogenic factors, such as pollution.

Strategies are needed to protect the marine food web – for example, through establishment of more marine reserves. Currently, CCAMLR marine reserves exist off the South Orkney Islands near the Antarctic Peninsula, and in the Ross Sea region. Furthermore, CCAMLR and Australia need to examine more formally the current and future impacts of climate change on Southern Ocean ecosystems. For example, climate change scenarios could become part of decision rules that are used to estimate catch limits (Brooks et al. 2018).

Table 8 Australian Antarctic fisheries catches and catch limits, 2015–20


Catch (catch limit) (tonnes)

Antarctic toothfish

Area 58.4.1

Antarctic toothfish

Area 58.4.2

Mackerel icefish

Area 58.5.2


122 (724)

10 (35)

10 (309)


400 (660)

Not fished

469 (482)


206 (660)

35 (35)

543 (561)


264 (545)

42 (42)

515 (526)


Not fished

50 (50)

443 (443)


Not fished

58 (60)

507 (527)

Source: CCAMLR (2020)

Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing

IUU fishing encompasses all fishing and related activities that breach any law (national or international) with regard to extraction, reporting and conservation (Ma 2020). In the areas managed by CCAMLR and Australia, IUU fishing has effectively been reduced to near zero in recent years. In the absence of actual catch rates, it is difficult to determine how much fish IUU vessels catch.

As well as harming fish stocks through overfishing, including in prohibited areas, IUU activities are frequently linked to arms, people and drug smuggling activities; bribery; money laundering; and document fraud (Swan 2018). In 2016, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations brought into force the Agreement on Port State Measures, a legally binding agreement, to prevent illegally caught fish entering markets (FAO 2021).

All known IUU vessels have used gillnets, a method that CCAMLR has banned. Lost gillnets continue to float through the ocean, and catch and destroy fish (‘ghost fishing’), so that the actual numbers of fish taken from the ecosystems are much larger than those officially reported.

Historically, bottom longline and gillnet IUU fishers have exploited toothfish on the continental slope and submarine banks. Since 2009–10, CCAMLR has not estimated IUU fishing at the level of individual stocks. However, the organisation maintains a list of IUU vessels of both contracting and noncontracting parties.

Off the coast of East Antarctica, IUU fishing is at historically low levels. However, as fisheries productivity in low and mid-latitudes are predicted to decrease because of climate change, IUU fishing may return to higher latitudes. If it were to resume, uncontrolled fishing is likely to alter the structure of the Southern Ocean food web and could lead to stock declines (Trebilco et al. 2020). Thus, the ecosystem-based management approach used by CCAMLR would be jeopardised.


Tourism is a major economic activity in Antarctica and is regulated under the Antarctic Treaty, its Protocol on Environmental Protection, and measures and resolutions adopted by the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting. In addition, regulations of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) determine standards for ship operations. It is mandatory for all shipping operators to adhere to the IMO’s International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code), which entered into force on 1 January 2017 (IMO 2019). The requirements of the Polar Code supplement those of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which still apply to polar shipping. The Polar Code aims to protect human lives, but also to minimise the impact of shipping on polar environments (IMO 2019).

Antarctica is a popular tourist destination, and the industry continues to grow. From 2014–15 to 2019–20, the number of visitors more than doubled, increasing from 36,702 to 74,381 (IAATO 2021). Most tourists visited the Antarctic Peninsula; some travelled to the Ross and Weddell seas regions. On the Antarctic Peninsula, the number of sites visited increased from 206 in 2014–15 to 282 in 2019–20 (IAATO 2021). From 2018–19 to 2019–20, tourist numbers increased by 32% from 56,168 to 74,401 visitors (Carey 2020, IAATO 2021). The increase was in part due to the launch of 9 new purpose-built vessels (IAATO 2021).

In East Antarctica, the Ross Sea is the most visited region, but the cost and duration of voyages limit the number of passengers. In 2018–19, only 98 passengers (excluding crew and expedition staff) visited the Ross Sea, whereas some 514 passengers visited the region in 2019–20 (IAATO 2021), when 99% of tourists departed from South American ports (Carey 2020).

During this period, a tourist vessel visited Commonwealth Bay in the Australian Antarctic Territory in January 2018 for the first time in 7 years. A large iceberg, B90B, had blocked the entrance to the bay for several years.

Tourists travel during the Antarctic summer, the breeding season for most Antarctic wildlife. Environmental aspects of tourism are regulated through the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, implemented by each treaty party, as is the case for all activities. Safety and operational aspects of tourism activities will be subject to measures agreed by the Antarctic Treaty parties, although the entry into force of the relevant measures is lagging. In addition, the industry develops and implements self-regulatory practices. There are calls for additional regulations through the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting because of increasing numbers of visitors and vessels travelling to the continent, as well as the increasing variety of adventure activities offered by tour operators (Walton 2018, Carey 2020). Potential impacts of human activities on Antarctic values include disturbance to wildlife, pollution (chemical, noise and light), and introduction of non-native organisms.

In 2020, 43 tour operators active in Antarctica were nationals of signatory nations of the Antarctic Treaty, meaning that commercial tourism is almost universally carried out within the framework of the treaty system. Companies are keen to increase their markets, and build new ships to replace old ones and to add to the current fleet. Some 70 vessels were projected to operate by 2021 (Walton 2018); the COVID-19 crisis dampened these ambitions.

The impact of tourism is considered through the environmental impact assessments required for all activities under the Protocol, although on-site monitoring and verification of impacts is limited. General and site-specific visitor guidelines assist tourism operators to carry out their activities in an appropriate manner, including keeping safe distances between people and wildlife. However, long-term and additive impacts have not been examined in detail, nor has there been a fine-scale assessment of effects on plants and soil organisms (Carey 2020). For example, trampling can change soil properties, decrease the habitat quality of soil organisms and affect soil respiration (Tejedo et al. 2014). Tourism operations have expanded significantly in the past 2 decades, and activities are becoming more diversified (e.g. more adventure activities, more fly–cruise operations) (Liggett et al. 2017).

Macquarie Island is managed by Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service. Commercial tour operators must apply to the service for permission to visit the island. Quotas limit access to 18 vessels with up to 1,500 tourists per financial year (Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service 2020). In the 5 years from 2015–16 to 2019–20, an average of 7 tourist vessels and 586 passengers per year visited the island (N Carmichael, Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, pers. comm., 22 July 2021).


Bioprospecting is the systematic search for biological products (biochemical or genetic) from plants, animals and microbes that can be developed commercially for use in food products, bioremediation, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and so on (O’Connor 2016, Kumar et al. 2018). Globally, companies spend significant sums on finding and commercialising compounds derived from biological resources, attracting significant profits. For example, sales of drugs derived from the English yew (Taxus baccata) generated US$2.3 billion in 2000 (Beattie et al. 2005).

Bioprospecting activities have been taking place in Antarctica since at least 1995, mainly focused on the marine environment (Hemmings & Rogan-Finnemore 2008). Recently, bioactive compounds with potential commercial uses were isolated from fungi in glacial ice (de Menezes et al. 2020), lakes (Ogaki et al. 2020a) and deep-sea sediments (Ogaki et al. 2020b). Antarctic yeasts produce enzymes with potential use in industries, such as the food, wine, and textile industries (Martorell et al. 2019).

The pharmaceutical industry already uses various genetic materials sourced from Antarctica, such as the hydrolase enzyme from Antarctic krill, which prevents immune rejection reactions; melanin derived from the Antarctic black yeast Nadsoniella nigra, which has cytotoxic activity in human cancer cells (Guyomard 2010); and a bacterial glycoprotein that assists wound healing. A protein from Antarctic krill improves dye uptake in cotton fabrics (Pisitsak et al. 2018), and there are many more examples (Lohan & Johnston 2003).

Considerable efforts and resources are required for successful bioprospecting. From finding a compound to achieving a marketable product can take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars. Biological prospecting occurs in the Antarctic region, and a 2020 survey conducted by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research summarised bioprospecting or natural products research undertaken by countries active in Antarctica, and related patents. The Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting has agreed that the Antarctic Treaty System is the appropriate international framework for managing the collection of biological material in the Antarctic Treaty area and for considering its use. Bioprospecting activities in the Antarctic Treaty area are subject to the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty and its Environmental Protocol, including the requirement for prior environmental impact assessment. Harvesting of marine organisms would also be subject to the CCAMLR.