Antarctic Ecosystem: Human Impact

whale bones
The high tide line traces a path along the beach to bleached whale bones on Deception Island, the site of many whaling stations in the early 20th century. (Photo by Regina Campbell-Malone, WHOI)
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whale bone
Half-buried remains of human occupation on volcanic Deception Island, which last erupted in 1970. The rusting tanks frame the research ship L.M. Gould at anchor in the harbor, a volcanic caldera flooded by the ocean. (Photo by Regina Cambell-Malone, WHOI) Enlarge »

When early Antarctic explorers returned home and described the abundance of seals and whales they had seen, sealers and whalers were drawn to Antarctic waters to hunt the valuable animals. Hunting was so intense that some species were driven nearly to extinction, and sealing and whaling slowed down only when there were too few left to make the hunts profitable. Agreements among nations now protect most seals and whales limiting how many can be killed. Human settlements in Antarctica have often left traces of their presence behind; some are now preserved historic sites.

Populations of most Antarctic seal species have increased dramatically. Most whale species, though, still number fewer than they once did, and some nations continue whaling in Antarctic waters. Today, fish and krill are the only large-scale animal fisheries in the Southern Ocean, but many sea birds, especially albatrosses, are killed by fishing lines. Factory ships made huge catches possible, and some scientists are concerned that so many krill will be taken that it may affect the food supply for Antarctica’s predators.