'Hollywood dynasty' populates the Antarctic

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The Independent Online

Winter is just starting in Antarctica. You'd think such a remote place would be safe from the fisherman.

Winter is just starting in Antarctica. The sun will set on 22 March and not reappear again until September. The temperature, which last month was an average of -40.5C, might drop to anything up to - 89.6, the coldest temperature ever recorded. Cold. Cold enough to make even a Newcastle girl put her coat on.

You'd think such a remote place would be safe from the fisherman; but it's not. By fisherman, I don't mean you or I with our rods sitting over a hole cut in the ice, like they do in the Arctic. I mean fisheries, fishing for fish to make money with.

Commercial fishing first started in the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia, in 1969. Any of you who watched the recent drama, Shackleton, staring Kenneth Brannagh, might remember South Georgia, the whaling station they set off from, and that three of them returned to in search of rescue, while the rest of the men waited on Elephant Island. Anyway, the fishing crept inwards, to the coastal areas of the high Antarctic in the early 1980s. Today, about eight species are "target" species and at least two are commercially extinct already. The Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which came into force 20 years ago, does its best to control commercial fishing in the Antarctic and set quotas but oceans, and the Southern Ocean in particular, are not easy to police. (A great book about all this is Karl Hermann Kock's Antarctic Fish and Fisheries. But it is a scientific book, i.e. big words and not cheap.) But the very first record of an Antarctic fish being caught – and therefore likely to be the first actual fish ever caught there – was in September of 1800. One of the officers aboard the American sealer, Aspasia, caught several "cod-like fish", of about 18in long. But it was not until Sir James Clark Ross' expedition of 1839-43 that fish were properly collected, and studied.

Antarctic fish, as you might imagine, are not amphetamine charged. These are more your 1960s drop-outs of the fish world. Slow to do anything: reproduce, grow, eat, move. They're a law unto themselves. Out of the 20,000 species of fish we know to exist in the world, only about 270 of them live in the southern oceans. They also tend to be quite small – most of the fish in the coastal waters don't make it past 45cm. And the demersal, or bottom dwelling fishies tend to be less than 45cm – or 18in long. In all probability the fish that was caught from the American sealer boat was a juvenile marbled notothenia. It may not be the most trippy off the tongue name – none of the names of Antarctic fish are – but the Notothenioidei are important because they account for 95 per cent of the fish in most of the Southern Ocean. Think of it as a big Hollywood dynasty, from which six families come. I'm not even going to begin to cloud your heads on a Saturday with the scientific names of these families. Let's just say that the two most abundant are commonly referred to as the Antarctic cod and the ice fish.

Notothenioids are particularly fascinating because they do not freeze when they come into contact with ice. This is because they (aside from one species) contain eight – count 'em – types of antifreeze in their blood called glycopetides which prevent ice crystals from forming in their tissues. This phenomenon is, as you may imagine, of great commercial interest, especially in the ice-cream world. The ice fishes have another USP because they have no haemoglobin (which is why they are also referred to as "white-blooded fish"). Their blood is translucent and their gills are white, not red like in other fish. So they'd be popular with the minimalists out there.

But it is krill which is king in Antarctica. Not in size, but it is the foodstuff on which all of Antarctica is built, without it the fish, crab-eater seals (who don't actually eat crabs at all), penguins and other seabirds, the entire eco-system would collapse. Although it's fished for – as food for humans and livestock – luckily Mother Nature did build in some protection. Krill spoils very easily, within hours it is inedible, so although fishing for it is not itself expensive, keeping it fresh, is. This at least makes it a bit more difficult.

You would think that the early Antarctic explorers would have had a gay old time, with a plentiful supply of fresh fish to eat. But the only time Shackleton's men ate fresh fish on the Endurance expedition was when they caught a sea leopard, opened it up and found several undigested fish, which they "fried in the sea leopard's blubber". Now that's something we're never likely to see on even the most poncey restaurant menu.