Sparta drama sparks criticism of Antarctic fishery

Last updated 08:12 22/12/2011

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A leading polar biologist has blasted Ross Sea fishing operations saying that the Russian boat Sparta is facing the prospect of sinking in what will shortly be a feeding ground of over a quarter of the planet's Emperor penguins.

"How much did New Zealand spend to help that one Emperor penguin who strayed to New Zealand beaches this last year, a bit of irony there," wrote American biologist Dr David Ainley who got his PhD 40 years ago studying Adelie penguins.

Emailing from Cape Royds in McMurdo Sound, Ainley labelled the New Zealand supported toothfishery insane with Sparta having no business in the area.

"These under-powered, single hulled boats are catastrophes waiting to happen."

The 24-year-old Russian flagged Sparta hit an iceberg on Friday around 1000 kilometres northeast of New Zealand's Scott Base, on the edge of the Ross Sea Ice Shelf. It continues to take in water and lists.

Its 32 crew are struggling to save the boat which also holds 180 tons of light fuel oil.

Ainley said that in that region there was an important Emperor penguin colony.

"These birds would not do well, even if it was sewing-machine oil, or even fish oil, spilled."

The area was important for foraging by the large populations of Antarctic and Snow petrels (30 per cent of the world population).

"And in a month, 26 per cent of the world population of Emperor penguins (from Victoria Land colonies) will be feeding in that area to gain condition before their annual moult.

"After they get fat, they'll moult while resting on ice floes in that area for a few weeks; so much for Happy Feet."

Ainley said 38 per cent of the Adelies forage there as well because of massive amounts of krill and small fish in the shelf break waters Sparta is now in.

Rescue mission to Sparta must be costing tens of thousands of dollars a day, particularly as it included to date two trips by the Royal New Zealand Air Force and one by the US Air Force, as well as a Korean icebreaker.

"This Sparta saga just emphasises how insane this quest for 'white gold', in the form of Antarctic toothfish, has become," he said.

In the short history of the Ross Sea toothfishery there has been at least two med-evacs, a New Zealand vessel going home with a cracked hull, a British one needing engine parts dropped and a South Korean boat sinking with the loss of 22 men.

Each rescue mission runs into costs that exceed the research grants for the scientists in the region.

Around half of the commercial caught toothfish is taken by New Zealand boats, and officials in Wellington have resisted international calls to have the Ross Sea declared a protected marine sanctuary.

Last Ocean New Zealand's Peter Young says Sparta shows how dangerous the fishery is.

"An Olympic style fishery (a race until the quota is caught) is highly competitive, boats want to catch as much as they can, as quickly as they can and the highly competitive nature of fishing undoubtedly pushes crews and their vessels into marginal areas," Mr Young said.

"It's outrageous that these sub standard fishing vessels are allowed to operate in the most pristine marine ecosystem on earth.

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"It's not the first boat that has got into trouble down there. This is an environmental disaster waiting to happen."

The campaign said New Zealand and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which manages the area, "needs to take a long hard look at our involvement in this fishery and weigh up the benefits as opposed to the cost".

Earlier this week the deputy head of the Russian Antarctic expedition at the research institute of the Arctic and Antarctic regions Vyacheslav Martyanov criticised boats like Sparta for being in the area.

"Only ice strengthened vessels or icebreakers can sail there. We can only guess how such a small and unfitted vessel came to that area."

Another Russian official told state radio in Moscow there was no technical solution of cleaning fuel spills in icy areas.

Yesterday another RNZAF Hercules flew pumps, patches and other equipment to the scene to parachute to Sparta.

The Rescue Coordination Centre says a Norwegian vessel Seljavaer is heading away from the Sparta as it attempts to navigate a way around the heavy ice, while Sparta's sister ship, Chiyo Maru no. 3, is approximately still 180 kilometres. It is not ice strengthened.

The Korean Government icebreaker Araon is expected to reach Sparta by Boxing Day.

- Stuff

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