Peter Young: Protecting Happy Feet's home

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A 75kg Antarctic Toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) caught in the Ross Sea. Photo / RossSea
A 75kg Antarctic Toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) caught in the Ross Sea. Photo / RossSea

I took an interest in the Antarctic toothfish Fishery six years ago after going down to the Ross Sea to film wildlife in the summer of 2007. The issue is a fascinating mix of science, conservation, international politics and business. I'm currently bringing it together in an NZ on Air funded documentary that will screen on Prime Television later in the year.

I have stepped out of editing to respond to Gareth Morgan's latest column in which he makes reference to 'Green-necks' and the 'dark underbelly of the green movement.' I happen to be one of those 'green-necks' and reckon his attention seeking approach to the issue reveals more about him than the movement or people he is trying to describe. As a wildlife cameraman I have developed a strong appreciation for our natural world, but I believe my view is well balanced. I have actually worked in the fishing industry, long-lining for two seasons on a family run vessel out of Washington and Alaska. There, I gained first hand experience about the pressure fishers face to fill holds and feed families. I also worked for ten years filming for Country Calendar, which gave me an appreciation for people who live off the land. I then spent three years producing the television series Hunger for the Wild, which celebrated every Kiwi's right to enjoy the bounty from land and sea.

I am not anti-fishing, nor am I against our right to hunt or gather. I simply believe we should not be fishing the last remaining untouched areas of the world's ocean. The Ross Sea is certainly that, as confirmed by a 2008 study which found it to be the most pristine marine ecosystem on Earth (Halpern et al 2008).

Let me put 'pristine' in context because NOTHING in New Zealand comes close to the pristine qualities that we talk of in the Ross Sea. In New Zealand even the most remote wilderness areas have been severely impacted by either humans or the animals we brought - stoats, cats, and possums to name just a few.

Antarctica, on the other hand, has never had a native human population so the ecosystems there - particularly the Ross Sea, remain relatively untouched. When I filmed there the sheer numbers of the wildlife were amazing; I describe it as the Serengeti of Antarctica. Unlike every other ocean on Earth, in the Ross Sea, the top predators are all still in their natural numbers and in balance. It is a food-web shaped by natural forces rather than human.

In 1996 that began to change. New Zealand sent a fishing vessel down to the Ross Sea to explore potential fishing grounds for Antarctic Toothfish, sold as "Chilean sea bass" in up-market restaurants around the world. As word about this un-tapped toofhfish resource spread other countries joined in.

When I was filming there six years ago I met a number of scientists - mainly from the US - who had spent most of their careers studying in the Ross Sea. They were deeply concerned about the impact this fishery would have on what they referred to as their "living laboratory." I thought this would make a great documentary so started researching.
I spoke to the various parties involved on both sides of the debate, including members of the fishing industry, the New Zealand Government, and scientists from around the world. I visited the seat of Antarctic power in Hobart to understand the politics in the Ross Sea and as I learnt more about this issue I found myself aligning with the concerns of the Ross Sea scientists.

Soon after, we formed the Last Ocean Trust in Christchurch to start raising awareness of the Ross Sea and the need to protect its ecosystem. Many eyes are now turning to what is happening in the Ross Sea and as resources come under increasing pressure this issue is going to intensify. New Zealand's historical and political ties to the region will ensure we are always in the thick of it.

By calling some of the world's leading Antarctic Scientists 'green-necks' Gareth Morgan is flippantly disregarding decades of vital on the ground research and understanding of the Ross Sea. He should not be doing that - just as we should not be flippantly destroying the nearest thing we have on Earth to a pristine marine Ecosystem.

Gareth Morgan has some good points to add to this debate and I have asked that he share them with me in my documentary. Over the past six years I have interviewed many world experts on the issues surrounding this Ross Sea Fishery. All views - regardless of their position are treated with respect and contribute to the bigger picture, which is the state of the world's oceans, the value of the Ross Sea and the best way forward for humanity. Ultimately they ask the question - should we continue to fish the Ross Sea or should we leave it alone, so we can better understand our natural world - and have something decent to leave our children?

Peter Young is managing director of Fisheye Films, an independent production company based in Christchurch. He is co-founder of the Last Ocean Trust.

- NZ Herald

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