The world came together to safeguard Antarctica for all humanity as a place for peace and science, but the waters surrounding it are still under threat from exploitation. Maintaining the pristine state of the deep waters of Antarctica – that drive the global circulation of heat and nutrients – is vital for marine life such as whales and penguins, but also for a viable future for the planet. The 25 Antarctic Treaty members committed to form a large network of MPAs in the great Southern Ocean by 2012. In 2016, after years of negotiation, countries put aside their differences and agreed to establish the world’s largest marine protected area in one of the world’s most iconic places- the Ross Sea.
- The international community declared Antarctica a place of peace and science at the height of the Cold War.
- This is one of the most pristine marine environments on the planet and its protection will provide a true legacy for future generations, however it is under threat from increasing fishing activity and climate change.
- Antarctica is the world’s heritage – its functions and its wildlife need to be protected.
- Protecting Ocean life at its source is critical. Global Ocean circulation is largely driven by the deep water formation around Antarctica’s coast, driving heat transfer and transporting essential nutrients to the great Ocean currents that feed the world.
- Building on the momentum of the protection of the Ross Sea, it is important that leaders continue to focus on protecting life in the great Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica.
- At a time when climate change impacts are increasing, we need to ensure we protect the unique Ocean environment around Antarctica.
- Creating large marine reserves in relatively untouched areas in the Southern Ocean such as the Ross Sea creates important global climate reference areas, helping our understanding of how a large-scale fully functioning ecosystem works and is influenced by climate change and Ocean acidification.
- The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which is ratified by Russia and 24 other member governments including the EU, USA, Australia, UK, China, is charged with conserving the unique ecosystems of the seas surrounding Antarctica and is a part of the Antarctic Treaty System.
- In 2012 all 25 CCAMLR members committed to establishing a representative network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean.
- The 2012 deadline is long gone, but finally in 2016, following five consecutive meetings and a change of position by Russia, CCAMLR unanimously agreed to establishing a MPA in the Ross Sea.
- Members will need to work hard to catch up on their earlier commitments by agreeing to further Southern Ocean protected areas, including in East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula.
The Ross Sea
- The Ross Sea in Antarctica is one of the least impacted large marine ecosystems on Earth and because of the value of this area for research and conservation, a number of countries, research institutions, civil organizations, and citizens had been calling for its protection.
- Since its discovery in 1841 the Ross Sea has been the focus of extensive scientific research, with some data sets going back over 150 years.
- Despite its remote location, over 100 scientists visit the Ross Sea annually to study everything from seafloor life to Ocean biogeochemistry.
- The Ross Sea marine protected area is now the world’s largest marine protected area, covering 1.55 million km2, of which 1.1 million km2 is fully protected.
- Because the Ross Sea will likely be the last polar Ocean to lose its sea ice, it will be a critical refuge for many endangered species, including predators such as killer whales and leopard seals – the tigers of the sea.
- It offers unprecedented opportunities for science, and as a reference site for understanding how a large Ocean ecosystem works and is influenced by climate change. We do not have any other place of such scale left in the world Ocean.
- In recognition of the value of the Ross Sea for research and for conservation, a number of countries, research institutions, civil organizations, and world citizens have asked for its protection.
- Although Ross Sea waters comprise just 2% of the Southern Ocean, they are home to an estimated: • 38% of the world population of Adélie penguins • 26% of the world population of emperor penguins • 30% of the world population of Antarctic petrels • 6% of the world population of Antarctic minke whales • 50% of Ross Sea killer whales, a distinct species • 45% of the South Pacific Weddell seal population.
The Weddell Sea
- The Weddell Sea is ice-bound, wild and remote, making it also one of the most intact ecosystems in the world.
- Despite its remoteness, increased research over the past few decades have shown that it is an ecosystem teeming with life, including many seabird and mammal species such as emperor penguins, elephant seals, minke, humpback, blue and fin whales.
- Dozens of new species have been discovered on scientific expeditions and it is very likely that many more will be discovered in the future as well.
- The region is under threat from climate change and Ocean acidification, and it needs to be protected in order to ensure the resilience of the marine life in the area.
- In 2016, the EU put forward a proposal (developed by Germany) to CCAMLR for the protection of 1.8 million Km2 of this precious ecosystem, making it potentially the largest marine reserve in the world. Click here for more information on why a MPA is needed in this area.
- A proposal has been put forward by Australia, France and the EU to put in place a system of MPAs in the East Antarctic.
- This area has distinctive deep water life, and is an important area for marine mammals and seabirds, as well as the Patagonian toothfish (also known as Chilean Seabass).
- Large areas of this region have not been studied, however it is important to take a precautionary approach, as the data that exists shows this area to be biologically very rich.
- Hopefully the Ross Sea agreement will pave the way for an East Antarctic network of MPAs.
What Needs To Happen?
- The protection of the Southern Ocean is a defining issue for our times, and it can help bring countries together.
- We have a once-in-a-generation chance to do things differently.
- By creating a system of Southern Ocean marine reserves, we could protect life in the global Ocean on an order of magnitude greater than anything that has been achieved before.
- We need to build on the momentous victory of the commitment to protect the Ross Sea that sets an important precedent for future Ocean protection, to ensure that a network of MPAs are established in the region.
- The MPA Proposals are based on best available science and took years of development to reach their current state.
- We need to quickly ensure the protection of East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea so that more very large Southern Ocean protected areas are established that build on the model agreed in the Ross Sea, and encourage the development of further proposals for conservation of this unique region, particularly around the fragile Antarctic Peninsula.
- These MPAs would be a heritage for all humanity, a sanctuary for science to study a near pristine ecosystem and understand the impacts of climate change on polar regions.
For more information please visit the Antarctic Ocean Alliance