Is This the Year Governments Protect Antarctica’s Seas?

The odds world governments will finally agree to establish marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean are looking better than ever. 

Published October 25, 2016

The Southern Ocean around Antarctica is one of the most diverse, fragile, and poorly studied ocean ecosystems on Earth. But as far as marine protection goes, it’s the Wild West. That could soon change, as representatives from 24 countries plus the European Union sit down this week to discuss the establishment of three marine protected areas (MPAs) in the waters off Antarctica. If the proposed protections go through, they will be the first of their kind for Antarctica’s marine environment. 

Update: CCAMLR members have agreed to protect a 1.57 million square kilometer region in the Ross Sea. 

Continental Antarctica has been protected since 1991 when a new agreement—called the Madrid Protocol—was added to the international Antarctic Treaty. That agreement banned mining on the continent, and established a strict requirement for environmental assessments before any other activity could take place. But the Madrid Protocol does not cover the surrounding ocean. For decades, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has been working to establish MPAs around Antarctica, and there is reason to hope that this year they might finally achieve that goal.

This week, at a high-level CCAMLR meeting in Hobart, Australia, attendees are discussing creating three new MPAs in the Southern Ocean: one in the Ross Sea, proposed by the United States and New Zealand; one off East Antarctica, proposed by France and Australia; and one in the Weddell Sea, proposed by Germany. Together the MPAs encompass almost six million square kilometers of ocean, and include a mixture of strict “no-take areas,” where fishing is banned, and special research areas, where fishing for scientific purposes is allowed.

The proposed MPAs have been under discussion for years, but have so far faced repeated political roadblocks. In 2009, CCAMLR committed to establishing a network of protected areas by 2012, but the complications of establishing MPAs on the high seas, where no one country has control, slowed the process down.

Most of the wrangling over the protected areas has involved countries trying to defend their fishing rights in the region. There is a large and lucrative fishery for Patagonian toothfish, as well as smaller test fisheries for Antarctic krill. Over the past few years, attendees have negotiated a reduction in the sizes of the proposed protected areas, and changed their composition, says Mike Walker, project director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance. With the changes, it appears that all CCAMLR members may now be ready to accept at least one of the proposals.

“In 2014 there were two states blocking the Ross Sea proposal: Russia and China,” says Walker. “Last year it was only Russia.”

Now, there are signs Russia may be ready to come on side, says Walker, despite ongoing diplomatic tensions over Syria and Ukraine. In just the past few months, Russian president Vladimir Putin declared 2017 the Year of Ecology, greatly expanded one of Russia’s Arctic MPAs, and appointed one of his close allies, Sergei Ivanov, as special advisor on ecology and the environment. And last month US Secretary of State John Kerry said at the Our Oceans Conference in Washington, DC, that he was optimistic there would be progress on the Ross Sea MPA this year.

“All indications are that this year will be unlike previous years,” says Walker.

Marine scientists welcome progress on the adoption of Antarctic MPAs, but are concerned that the compromises necessary to make them acceptable to all of the countries involved has weakened their conservation value.

“The current proposed sizes of the no-take areas are not up to the scientific recommendations,” says Natalie Ban, who studies marine conservation at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. For example, she says, krill is a keystone species in the Southern Ocean, sitting at the base of the food chain, but it is being fished without much knowledge as to the wider ecosystem effects. “Given how little we know about this ecosystem, and how fragile it is, we really need more areas where damaging human activity is banned,” says Ban.

If CCAMLR succeeds in setting up MPAs in the Southern Ocean it will be a precedent-setter for protecting the high seas, and could lead to progress in protecting other ocean regions, says Walker. Only the CCAMLR has the capacity to create international MPAs; there is not the same international structure in other high seas areas, he says. “States are paying particular attention to what is going on here.”