Ocean Newsletter

No.545 April 20, 2023

  • Issues Remaining after the Basic Plan on Ocean Policy and Future Prospects SAKAGUCHI Hide (President, Ocean Policy Research Institute of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation)
  • The Future of International Governance in the Antarctic Ocean: The Lead Up to the 2026 Conference Hosted by Japan SHIBATA Akiho (Professor, Kobe University, and Director, Polar Cooperation Research Center (PCRC))
  • Predictions for the Future of Marine Ecosystems Using Natural Analogues of Ocean Acidification WADA Shigeki(Assistant Professor, Shimoda Marine Research Center, University of Tsukuba)

The Future of International Governance in the Antarctic Ocean: The Lead Up to the 2026 Conference Hosted by Japan

KEYWORDS Antarctic Treaty / Consultative Meeting / Bioprospecting
SHIBATA Akiho (Professor, Kobe University, and Director, Polar Cooperation Research Center (PCRC))
In the spring of 2026, Japan will host the world's most important meeting on Antarctic governance, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM). Due to the significant changes in the geopolitical situation and disturbances to the rule of law in the international community, this meeting will be an important opportunity for Japan, as the host country, to demonstrate leadership in Antarctic governance. There are many challenges related to ocean governance under the Treaty, and it is hoped that Japan will demonstrate leadership in addressing Antarctic bioprospecting and tourism activities, as well as the entry into force of the Liability Annex.
Antarctic Governance and Japan: The 2026 Antarctic Consultative Meeting in Japan
The 48th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM), the most important meeting for international governance under the Antarctic Treaty, will be held in Japan in the spring of 2026. The ATCM is held annually according to the alphabetical order of the names of the consultative parties (29 out of 56 treaty parties) that have demonstrated a substantial interest in Antarctica, such as through dispatching scientific expeditions. This will be the first time in more than 30 years that Japan has hosted the meeting, since 1994 in Kyoto. Amidst the significant changes in the geopolitical situation and with the rule of law in the international community being challenged, this meeting will be an important opportunity for Japan as the host country to demonstrate leadership in Antarctic governance. The Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent is also a maritime region adjacent to an area that comes under the "Free and Open Indo-Pacific." The 2026 ATCM will present a valuable opportunity for Japan to lay out its Antarctic strategy domestically and internationally after withdrawing from Antarctic whaling.
Treatment of the "Ocean" in the Antarctic Treaty
The 1959 Antarctic Treaty was a groundbreaking treaty that demilitarized and denuclearized the entire Antarctic continent amid the US-Soviet Cold War, opened the region up to scientific research activities, and enabled international cooperation. At the same time, it left unresolved the disagreement between the seven countries claiming territory in Antarctica and those not recognizing those claims. Japan is the only Asian country among the original 12 signatories of the treaty. The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (the Madrid Protocol) designated the entire area south of 60 degrees South latitude as a "natural reserve, devoted to peace and science."
The Antarctic Treaty applies to the area south of 60 degrees South latitude (Article 6) and also applies to maritime areas. However, it stipulates that it does not prejudice or affect the rights of any State under international law with regard to the high seas within that area. Regarding this provision, questions arise regarding which maritime areas of the Southern Ocean can be called the "high seas" and whether, under the Antarctic Treaty (which does not deny the existence of territorial claims on the Antarctic continent), it is possible to assume that there are no territorial seas, EEZs, or continental shelves adjacent to the continent, so that the entirety of the Southern Ocean is high seas. The legal positions of the seven claimant countries (Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand, Norway and UK) and those of non-claimant countries differ regarding these matters. Furthermore, the content of the rights to the high seas reserved by the Antarctic Treaty, such as freedom of navigation, freedom of fishing, and freedom of scientific research, have been specified and regulated by international customary law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and its related agreements, and International Maritime Organization-related treaties. The parties to the Antarctic Treaty may not necessarily be the parties to these other maritime-related treaties.
Thus, the ocean governance under the Antarctic Treaty requires balancing the interests of both claimant and non-claimant countries, as in the case of the Antarctic Treaty, and regulating them through a special international legal system to which countries operating in the Antarctic Ocean accede. Specifically, these include the 1972 Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals, the 1980 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), and the Madrid Protocol, particularly Annex IV on the prevention of marine pollution and Annex V on specially protected areas. Annex V states that if a maritime area is included, an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) can be designated by consensus of the consultative parties, subject to the prior approval of the CCAMLR Commission. ASPAs can be established to protect the Antarctic environment and its ecosystems and its intrinsic values, and access to ASPAs is permitted only when there is prior permission based on internationally approved management plans. Thus, ASPAs can be a powerful tool for protecting the Antarctic marine environment. Mandatory measures to regulate the activities of Antarctic tourist ships have also been adopted under the ATCM but have not yet come into effect due to the lack of approval from the relevant consultative parties. Both the ATCM and the CCAMLR Commission operate under consensus decision-making, which is a feature of Antarctic governance and crucial for accommodating the substantive interests of the parties concerned. However, this consensus decision-making has recently become a challenge for governance, as it is often the case that China and Russia oppose the proposed regulations with no persuasive reasons.
Challenges in the Governance of the Antarctic Ocean in the Lead-up to the 2026 ATCM
How the Antarctic Treaty System can appropriately control the resource development pressures in the Southern Ocean under climate change, is a crucial theme in the lead-up to 2026. The international management of Antarctic marine living resources is mainly the responsibility of CCAMLR. However, in recent years, China and Russia have persistently opposed the establishment of protected marine areas (MPAs) under CCAMLR. In addition, at the 2022 ATCM in Germany, a proposal to designate the emperor penguin, the habitat of which extends to the land, sea ice, and sea of Antarctica, as an Antarctic Specially Protected Species under the Madrid Protocol, was rejected due to opposition from China. The reasons for China's opposition are not necessarily clear, but it should be remembered that the habitat of Emperor Penguins overlaps with those areas under the proposed MPAs. This suggests the CCAMLR and ATCM must be considered in an integrated manner in Antarctic governance.
Antarctic bioprospecting refers to exploring for useful chemical substances or genetic resources obtained from rare organisms living in Antarctica. The issue of whether to regulate internationally such activities for commercial purposes and how to distribute the benefits has been discussed at the ATCM for over 20 years with no concrete results due to conflicting interests of the consultative parties. The conclusion of the new treaty on Marine Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) in March 2023 may provide a renewed opportunity to examine in detail a special response through the Antarctic Treaty.
Under the Madrid Protocol, Antarctic mineral resource activities are prohibited, except for scientific research. Recently, there has been controversy over a geological survey for reserves of oil and gas, performed across a wide area of the Antarctic Ocean by a Russian marine geological survey ship. Distinguishing between scientific research and prospecting for commercial resources (here, "prospecting activities" refer to the Convention on the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resource Activities, which was concluded in 1988 but has not entered into force due to the lack of ratification) is difficult in practice. However, if it is scientific research as stipulated in Article 3 of the Antarctic Treaty, the results must be exchanged with other parties to the treaty. Some Antarctic Treaty parties argue that freedom of scientific research in the Southern Ocean is reserved under Article 6 of the Antarctic Treaty and is not subject to the requirement to exchange information under Article 3. If the main aim of Antarctic governance is to increase the transparency of Antarctic activities, it is important to proactively utilize the Article 3 provisions and the environmental impact assessment procedures in Annex I of the Madrid Protocol to urge those countries conducting these activities to be as transparent as possible.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 70,000 tourists visited Antarctica per year. However, numbers are expected to exceed 100,000 in the 2022 - 2023 season. Most Antarctic tourism involves accessing the continent by tourist ships and cruise yachts. Responding to maritime accidents in the Antarctic Ocean, ship-induced marine pollution, Antarctic environmental impacts and disturbances to scientific activities due to tourism activities continues to be an issue for the ATCM. Annex VI of the Madrid Protocol (Antarctic Liability Annex), which establishes response measures and cost reimbursement obligations for environmental emergencies arising from Antarctic activities, including tourist ships, was adopted in 2005 after lengthy negotiations but has not yet come into effect due to the lack of approval from the remaining nine consultative parties. All Asian consultative parties, namely, Japan, China, India and the Republic of Korea have not yet given their approval. Japan's leadership regarding this matter will highly appreciated. (End)
Adélie penguins and the Antarctic Ocean with sea ice retreated (at Mizukuguri Cove, near Showa Station, as photographed by the author, January 2017).

Adélie penguins and the Antarctic Ocean with sea ice retreated (at Mizukuguri Cove, near Showa Station, as photographed by the author, January 2017).

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