Countries unite to protect Southern Ocean in Antarctica

For years, world leaders have been arguing over the best way to protect the chilly Southern Ocean at the bottom of the world from threats like pollution and overfishing. Now, they may finally be one step closer to an agreement.

This week, members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) have convened in Hobart, Australia, for an annual meeting, where they will discuss the conservation and management of the Southern Ocean. And one of their priorities will be to continue negotiations on proposed marine protected areas, or MPAs, that have proved challenging.

Establishing the MPAs is crucial to the protection of, and continued research on, the Antarctic ecosystem, conservationists have argued. But some countries are concerned that the protected area could damage their fishing operations in the Southern Ocean, and for the past few years, negotiations have fallen flat.

The Southern Ocean, which surrounds the continent of Antarctica, may sound like a lifeless, frozen wasteland. But it’s actually a teeming ecosystem, home to everything from microscopic algae and tiny shrimplike krill to penguins, seals and whales.

In fact, it’s an important commercial fishing interest to some countries, particularly when it comes to krill and toothfish. Managing the fishing industry was a major reason CCAMLR was established in the first place, in 1980. Its responsibilities as an international body, now composed of 24 nations plus the European Union, include protecting the common resources in the Southern Ocean by setting catch limits for commercial fisheries and designating areas and times of the year when fishing cannot occur.

In 2009, the commission established its first MPA around the South Orkney Islands, just northeast of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. However, some scientists have been critical about the compromises that were involved in reaching an agreement. A paper published last week in Science journal noted that the final MPA excluded some ecologically important zones to “avoid conflict with commercial krill fisheries operated by several CCAMLR States.”

Since then, other countries have proposed additional MPAs in the Ross Sea, the East Antarctic and, most recently, the Weddell Sea. For an MPA to be established under CCAMLR rules, all member states must agree on the proposal, said Evan Bloom, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Oceans and Polar Affairs and head of the U.S. delegation to CCAMLR. The Ross Sea and East Antarctic proposals have been under negotiation for five years, but none of the MPAs have been approved.

If the proposals were to pass in their current forms, nearly 10 percent of the total Southern Ocean would be protected. The MPAs would include no-take zones, where fishing would not be permitted, as well as special research areas, where fishing for scientific purposes would be allowed.

These MPAs are critical for protecting the health of the Antarctic ecosystem, and maybe even fisheries in other parts of the world, conservationists have argued. Krill are a staple food for penguins, whales, seals, seabirds and other Antarctic animals, but some studies have suggested that they may be in decline in certain parts of the Southern Ocean. This may be thanks to overfishing, as well as effects of the warming climate.

The Southern Ocean is also an important contributor to the health of other marine ecosystems around the world, noted Andrea Kavanagh, director of the global penguin conservation campaign for the Pew Charitable Trusts. It’s the site of a critical ocean process known as upwelling, in which nutrient-rich water bubbles up from the bottom of the sea and joins currents that carry it to other parts of the planet.

There’s also scientific value in preserving what may be some of the last pristine marine ecosystems left on Earth, she added. “There’s potential that these reserves could end up offering answers on how to help ecosystems adapt – what are the things that we need to manage to help ecosystems adapt to a changing climate,” she said.

But some countries are worried about the limits these protected areas may place on their fisheries, and these concerns have stalled negotiations for the past few years. Last week’s Science paper noted that certain concessions have been made on both the Ross Sea and East Antarctic proposals, including reductions in the size of the areas that would be protected.

“Historically CCAMLR has been this institution where they require science to make decisions,” said Cassandra Brooks , the paper’s lead author and a PhD candidate at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. In other words, without sufficient data to suggest that fishing is safe in a given area, it would not be permitted.

But recently, Brooks said, some member states have called for a reverse in the burden of proof required, suggesting that “until there’s enough data to know that there’s enough of a threat, we shouldn’t have a marine protected area,” she said.

Until now, Russia has been among the most vocal opponents of the proposed MPAs. According to Bloom, it’s the only nation left that is not on board with the Ross Sea proposal. But that could change this year.

“At this meeting, Russia has been more amenable to talking with us,” he said. “And so we are in the process of seeing whether we can bring them on board with the goal of hopefully establishing what would be the world’s largest marine protected area by the end of this session of CCAMLR.”

While it’s unclear what caused the change of heart, Bloom noted that Secretary of State John Kerry – who has used his diplomatic role to draw historic new levels of attention to the oceans – has been communicating with the Russian government about the issue ahead of this year’s CCAMLR meeting, and “there’s been a real high-level push to get Russia to sort of come to the table on this.”

The improved negotiations may also be part of a renewed Russian interest in polar conservation. Earlier this year, President Vladimir Putin declared that 2017 will be the “Year of Ecology,” and over the summer the government expanded the Russian Arctic National Park.

“That, to us, sent a great signal that they’re concerned about [the] poles,” Kavanagh said.

Bloom cautioned that the Ross Sea proposal is the only one that is likely to move forward this year, if any of the MPAs are approved at all. And even if that happens, some scientists are concerned about the concessions that might be necessary to move the proposal forward.

A few CCAMLR member states have proposed setting a time limit on the MPAs, so that they would need to be renewed in 20 or 30 years, Brooks noted. This is an outcome that many conservationists hope to avoid, worrying that such a compromise might set a precedent for future international high-seas MPA negotiations.

“The hope is we get [an MPA] that’s in place long enough to be effective and long enough to meet its objective, which I would say would be a minimum of 50 years,” Brooks said.

But attendees of this year’s meeting agree that, in general, the climate is more optimistic than it has been in years. “It’s taken us six years to get to a place where people are feeling this positive,” Kavanagh said.