Click to return to the Homepage

A Partnership of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment, Brown University and Duke University

Printer friendly versionPrinter friendly version

Antarctic Conservation Commission

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is an intergovernmental organization established in 1982 to develop regulations on fisheries in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, south of the Antarctic Convergence.

The commission applies an ecosystem approach by considering the negative impacts of commercial fishing on non-targeted species, such as birds. In developing regulations, the commission acts as a forum to negotiate toward a consensus, using the best available science. The management approach has evolved to embrace a precautionary concept in which action can be taken to reduce harm before scientific ambiguity has been fully resolved.

Twenty-four nations and the European Union are members of the commission. The commission relies on member nations to implement and enforce regulations, but it monitors compliance through an inspection system and standing committee on compliance.

Although fishing by vessels of non-member nations is illegal, some non-members entered the fishery in 2000, compounding efforts to prevent illegal fishing that threatened the Patagonian toothfish population.

MEBM Attributes

  • Adaptive Management: Management strives to follow a precautionary approach that attempts to minimize the risk of long-term adverse effects rather than delaying an action until all the uncertainty and gaps in scientific data is mitigated.
  • Complexity: Management actions consider the relationships among marine organisms.


Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is to conserve Antarctic marine resources while allowing what is termed rational use.


The objectives include:

  • Prevention of decrease in the size of any harvested population to levels below those that ensure its stable recruitment.
  • Maintenance of the ecological relationship among harvested, dependent, and related populations of Antarctic marine living resources and the restoration of depleted populations.
  • Prevention of change or minimization of the risk of change in the marine ecosystem that is not potentially reversible during two or three decades, with the aim of making possible the sustained conservation of Antarctic marine living resources.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations

Each member of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is involved in fishing or scientific study in the Southern Ocean. The following 25 governments have named representatives to act as members on the commission:

  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • China
  • European Union
  • France
  • Germany
  • India
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • South Korea
  • Namibia
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Poland
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Ukraine
  • United Kingdom
  • United States
  • Uruguay

Key Parties

Nine nations are not members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, but are parties to the convention:

  • Bulgaria
  • Canada
  • Cook Islands
  • Finland
  • Greece
  • Mauritius
  • Netherlands
  • Peru
  • Vanuatu


Program Structure


The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (Commission) sets fishing policy, regulations, and facilitates scientific study of the Southern Ocean. It provides a forum for the members to reach agreement, through the development of a consensus.

Scientific Committee

The Commission receives advice from a Scientific Committee, which is composed of scientists appointed by Commission members. Additional scientists can be involved on an ad-hoc basis. It provides scientific information to assist the Commission in developing regulations. It basis its advice on assessments from two working groups: the Working Group on Ecosystem Monitoring and Management, and the Working Group on Fish Stock Assessment. The Scientific Committee also provides a forum for consultation and cooperation on scientific study.

Standing Committee on Implementation and Compliance

The Standing Committee on Implementation and Compliance reviews how members are implementing and complying with Commission regulations. It also provides advice and recommendations on means to promote compliance, and reports on the system of inspection, the program of international scientific observation, and steps taken by members to enforce compliance.

Standing Committee on Administration and Finance

The Standing Committee on Administration and Finance provides advice on administrative and financial matters, examines the audited financial statements of the commission, and examines operation of the annual budget and the draft of the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.


The Commission’s headquarters and administrative support are located in Hobart, Australia. The Australian government provides offices for the Secretariat of the Commission. The Commission appoints an Executive Secretary to lead the Secretariat to facilitate communication among members, produce and distribute publications, and manage scientific information, conservation measures and compliance data.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

A precedent for international cooperation had long been established in the regulation of marine resources in the Southern Ocean: 

  • After whaling ships moved into deeper water to access greater numbers of whales, the League of Nations took the first steps to protect whales in the 1930s.
  • In 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established to regulate whaling which was eventually banned. The latest commercial whaling season ended in 1987. The IWC declared much of the Southern Ocean a whale sanctuary in 1994.
  • Meanwhile, as whale populations were gaining greater protections, fishing for krill began to expand in the early 1970s.  With the history of resource extraction in the Southern Ocean, overfishing of krill appeared likely, raising concerns about whales and other species of fish and birds which relied on krill as a main food source.
  • These concerns led to the 1977 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, which resulted in the 1982 Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources to manage the extraction of resources in the Southern Ocean and promote sustainable populations of species. The agreement is executed by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is a nearly closed ecosystem due to the effect of the Antarctic Convergence, where cold Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters to the north.


Although few humans inhabit the Antarctic, a major threat to the ecosystem has been unrestrained hunting. Abundant populations of marine life have been reduced since hunting began in the 18th Century. Many species have been exterminated and others reduced to low levels through commercial exploitation.

Initially, hunters sought fur seals, but moved on to elephant seals when fur seals became scarce, This pattern of hunting one species until its population crashed and moving onto another population was repeated over and over.

Large-scale commercial exploitation of fish began in the 1970s as first trawlers and then longliner vessels entered the Southern Ocean.


Major Strategies

  • Development of regulations on harvesting of krill.
  • Establishment of total allowable catches (TACs) for commercially harvested fish species, and the imposition of TACs for some bycatch that would prompt a shutdown of the fishery when the bycatch TAC is met.
  • Banning of bottom trawling in mackerel icefish fishery around South Georges, as well as for a number of demersal fish.
  • Restricting the timing, use of gear, and season in fishing for Patagonian toothfish to minimize the incidental hooking and mortality of sea birds.
  • Instituting public awareness campaign to promote compliance with international convention standards on marine debris, and required members report annually on the incidence of marine debris encountered, and its impact on marine mammals and sea birds.
  • Preventing illegal fishing through vessel licensing requirements and inspections, and the use of automated satellite-linked monitoring systems to continuously monitor vessels within the Southern Ocean.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Ecosystem Monitoring Program

Established in 1985, the Ecosystem Monitoring Program measures the effects of fishing on harvested species, and dependent species. It also attempts to distinguish between changes in fish populations because of harvesting and those caused by environmental factors. Monitoring sites have been established. Members also submit data and perform field work. Data developed by other monitoring programs also is integrated into the assessments.



Ecosystem Impacts

Regulations have had a measurable effect on some species of marine organisms. For instance, fewer sea birds are drowned in longlines used in Patagonian toothfish fishing; deaths of albatross decreased 80 percent three years after new restrictions were imposed.

International Cooperation

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (Commission) has fostered international cooperation. By developing a consensus from its members, the Commission can advocate for measures that would improve the health of the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean.

For instance, at its urging, other international agencies, including the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, took steps to protect Antarctic seabirds feeding and wintering in areas outside the area managed by the Commission.

Framework for Action

Development of a precautionary approach can resolve the tension between non-scientist members of the Commission and the members of the Scientific Committee, and foster greater consensus on necessary actions to sustain marine species.


Website Links

Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources:

Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources: