24-nation summit convenes in icy wastes of AntarcticaJanuary 25, 1999
Web posted at: 1:16 p.m. EST (1816 GMT)
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SCOTT BASE, Antarctica (CNN) -- Representatives from 24 nations -- all signers of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty -- arrived Monday in Antarctica for a two-day summit on the ecology of the Earth's least-explored continent.
The meeting -- the first of its kind to be held on the frozen land mass -- was organized by New Zealand to call attention to the problems faced by the continent.
"Very few citizens of the world will ever come to Antarctica ... we are very privileged to be here," New Zealand's associate foreign minister Simon Upton told the delegates after their first dinner at the country's Scott Base. "We need to assure that the very special qualities of the only uninhabited continent in the world are respected and looked after."
Scott Base's scientists were moved out of the facility to make room for the visiting dignitaries. Some are sleeping at the New Zealand base, while others are bunking at the larger U.S. McMurdo Base nearby.
After a noisy eight-hour flight from New Zealand in a pair of C-130 Hercules transport planes, the ministers got their first look at the frozen continent.
"It is sort of undescribable in many ways, the enormity of it, the brightness and the glare," said Australian environmental minister Robert Hill.
"Perhaps the pilot was wrong, he has not brought us to Antarctica but to the moon," said Peru's foreign minister Fernando de Trazegnies.
The group is to spend Tuesday touring historic sites, including the expedition hut used by Captain Robert Scott during his ill-fated 1910-12 attempt to become the first man to reach the South Pole.
Norwegian Roald Amundsen beat him to the Pole by 23 days, and Scott died trying to return to his base camp.
British environment minister Michael Meacher is to return a collection of artifacts taken from the hut during a 1950s expedition and rescued last year from an auction house.
When they return to meetings, several crucial environmental issues are on the agenda. At the top of the list are concerns about overfishing.
At least 70 fishing boats are believed to be illegally taking Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean waters. Despite international efforts to stop them, the poachers haul in more than twice the quota of toothfish set in the 1959 treaty.
Many observers believe this overfishing could throw the region's ecology dangerously out of balance. At the meeting, Australia will push for a system to monitor the amount of fish caught and who's catching them.
"I think that we have to manage to set a kind of ... common force to control and to impose sanctions to people who violate the treaty," said de Trazegnies Sunday before the group left Christchurch, New Zealand. "This, for me, is very, very important. If we don't have that, the Antarctic, perhaps we are going to lose it."
"We need a greater sense of urgency," Upton said. "Human beings have managed to cause devastation over six continents. It would be good if we could stop that from happening in Antarctica."
The conference also will address the booming tourism industry on the continent. Some 15,000 people visit Antarctica each year -- mostly from cruise ships -- and their impact on the delicate ecosystem is an issue of growing concern.
The Antarctic Treaty, emerging from the Cold War, sought to foster peaceful use of the southern continent and ensure survival of its fragile environment.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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