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Plan to preserve the world’s ‘last ocean’ killed by Russia

As the most pristine marine ecosystem on the planet, Antarctica’s Ross Sea has become dubbed the world’s “last ocean.” Home to an abundance of penguins, whales, orcas, seals, and massive fish, the Ross Sea has so far largely avoided the degradation that has impacted much of the world’s other marine waters. However, a landmark proposal to protect the Ross Sea, as well as the coastline of East Antarctica, has failed today due to opposition by Russia.

“After two years of preparation, including this meeting, which Russia requested to settle the scientific case for the Ross Sea and East Antarctic proposals, we leave with nothing,” said Steve Campbell, Director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance.

Given its ecological importance, the U.S. and New Zealand proposed setting aside 2.3 million square kilometers of the Ross Sea for protection. The proposal has been supported by a widespread groups of NGOs, scientists, and nations, and, if established, the reserve would be the largest marine protected area in the world. However, in a meeting today of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Germany, Russia noted it would not sign on to the protected area and further claimed that the CCAMLR had no legal rights to set up protected areas—even though the organization (which includes 24 nations) has already established a protected area. Decisions made by CCAMLR must be unanimous.

Orca mother and calf surfacing in the Ross Sea. Photo by: Robert Pitman.
Orca mother and calf surfacing in the Ross Sea. Photo by: Robert Pitman.

Australia, France and the EU also proposed to set up seven protected areas along the coastline of East Antarctica, which would protect 1.9 million square kilometers in total. This proposal is also on hold due to opposition from Russia.

Although long remote and little-impacted, the world’s southern oceans have come under increasing exploitation in recent decades. As the world’s more northernly oceans have become overfished, the fishing industry is now turning to the Southern Ocean for krill and Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni), known to consumers as the expensive Chilean seabass. Little is known about the Antarctic toothfish, but given that it’s a slow-growing predator it could be depleted quickly. Krill, which underpins the entire ecosystem, is caught for Omega-3 products. Climate change and ocean acidification are also expected to increasingly impact the ecosystem.

The sanctuaries would not have banned fishing altogether, but instead set new regulations and no-go zones. Russia is among a few nations that have fishing fleets in the region.

In fact, David Ainley, a marine biologist who has spent decades in the Ross Sea, says that the protection process has already been undercut by the global fishing industry. Initially scientists pushed for protection of Ross Seas shelf and slope from fishing, including a ban on fishing, but Ainley says this was soon left to the wayside.

“The great powers (NZ, USA), and the NGOs, didn’t see the where-with-all to protect this area, because doing so would curtail fishing for toothfish. So, instead they added 1.7 million square kilometers of abyssal ocean to the north of the western shelf and waved flags about how this would protect undefined ‘biodiversity’ producing the largest MPA in the world. The P in MPA is incredibly challenged. They should call it Marine Managed Area, but, then, that is what CCAMLR is supposed to be doing: managing.”

According to Ainley this has become apart of a broader pattern to protect the fishing industry.

“The ‘MPAs’ that have been established around, e.g. South Georgia
(UK) and Heard Island (Australia) don’t prohibit fishing either, and the
boundaries of the MPA south of the South Ornkneys were devised by the
fishing industry. So, there’s a lot of double-speak going on in this
Southern Ocean MPA initiative.”

Still many NGOs are hoping for future progress on the U.S. and New Zealand proposal. Despite Russia’s intransigence, nations say there is still another chance to establish the sanctuaries in late October when CCAMLR meets again. But Russia will have to be convinced in the meantime.

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