Clinton urges controls on Antarctic tourism

WASHINGTON Mon Apr 6, 2009 5:13pm EDT

1 of 2. The 'Clipper Adventurer' ship arrives in the docks of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina, February 22, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Facundo Santana

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday urged tighter controls on cruise ships and tourists in Antarctica to prevent further environmental damage to the fragile region.

Addressing an international meeting on both the Antarctic and the Arctic, Clinton said as tourism increases to Antarctica there must be more regulations governing that travel.

"We have submitted a resolution that would place limits on landings from ships carrying large number of tourists. We have also proposed new requirements for lifeboats on tour ships to make sure they can keep passengers alive until rescue comes," she said, without providing further details.

Clinton was speaking at a joint session of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council, two bodies that discuss issues at both poles.

Tourism to the Antarctic region has increased five-fold since the early 1990s as tens of thousands of people cruise during the Southern Hemisphere's summer to see shrinking icebergs and wildlife.

In the past four months, there have been two rescue efforts for cruise ships stranded in icy Antarctic waters. Over a year ago, more than 150 crew and passengers escaped in a dramatic rescue after their ship hit ice off Antarctica and sank.

Clinton also said more needed to be done to prevent further degradation of the environment around Antarctica caused by vessels going to the region.

There have been concerns over shipwrecks, oil spills and aggravation of stresses on animals and plants that may already be suffering from global warming.

'NO TIME TO LOSE'

The Obama administration has made tackling climate change a priority and Clinton said the urgency of the issue was reflected by the collapse last weekend of an ice bridge holding together a huge Antarctic shelf.

"With the collapse of an ice bridge that holds in place the Wilkins Ice Shelf, we are reminded that global warming has already had enormous effects on our planet, and we have no time to lose in tackling this crisis," she said.

She urged nations to work together to resolve issues resulting from the warming of Arctic waters, an event likely to lead to new shipping lanes and future energy exploration.

The United States is the only one of five countries bordering the Arctic region that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas, a 1982 treaty that codifies which countries have rights to which oceans.

Clinton reiterated that the Obama administration wanted to ratify the treaty and this would give the "clarity we need to work together smoothly and effectively in the Arctic region."

Many environmental groups, the U.S. military, and energy companies looking to explore the Arctic have been pushing for ratification of the treaty, particularly now that sea lines will be opening as soon as the next decade as the ice thins in the summer.

As the ice melts, this could also pit countries that border the Arctic Ocean against each other to claim mineral rights. The Arctic powers include the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway.

"The changes under way in the Arctic will have long-term impacts on our economic future, our energy future and indeed again the future of our planet," said Clinton.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)

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