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 marine protected areas (MPAs) in the great Southern Ocean by 2012. In 2016, after years of negotiation, countries put aside their differences and agreed to establish the first of these, designating the world’s largest MPA in one of the world’s most iconic places: the Ross Sea. However, large areas of Antarctica are still unprotected leaving the region vulnerable to threats from our activities. Climate change impacts are exacerbating this vulnerability. To guard against these threats, the international community must work together to ensure that at least East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula are strongly protected by 2020.
- The international community declared Antarctica a place of peace and science in the early 1960s, 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, leaders must continue to expand protection of life in the great Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica.
- At a time when climate change impacts are increasing, and a warning that Antarctica’s ice-free areas could increase by up to a quarter by 2100 if greenhouse gases are not reduced, we need to ensure we protect the unique Ocean environment around Antarctica.
- Studies reveal that Ocean pollution is 5 times worse than previously thought, and reaching into every Ocean. Scientists are also finding plastics in Antarctica’s once-pristine waters. This sobering news reinforces the need to preserve some of the last near-pristine areas on Earth.
- 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), is ratified by the EU and 24 governments including the USA, Russia, Australia, New Zealand and China. It is charged with conserving the unique ecosystems of the seas surrounding Antarctica and is a part of the Antarctic Treaty System.
- In 2009, CCAMLR established the world’s first high-seas MPA, the South Orkney Islands southern shelf MPA, a region covering 94 000 km2 in the south Atlantic.
- CCAMLR members committed to establishing a representative network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean by 2012, following the agreement by world leaders in 2002 at the World Summit of Sustainable Development for a global MPA target.
- 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 a joint proposal by New Zealand and the USA to establish a very large MPA in the Ross Sea, with a huge fully protected area at its core. Scientists maintain that fully protected areas are critical to revitalise ocean life and build resilience to change – they are climate reserves.
- Members need to work hard to catch up on their earlier commitments by agreeing to additional Southern Ocean protected areas, including in East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula.
THE ROSS SEA- the world’s largest marine reserve
- 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.
- 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’s Ocean.
- 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 5% of the South Pacific Weddell seal population • nurseries for Antarctic toothfish, also known as Chilean seabass.
- The Ross Sea marine protected area is currently the world’s largest marine protected area that has been implemented, covering 1.55 million km2, of which 1.1 million km2 is fully protected.
- On the 1st of December 2017, the Ross Sea MPA finally came into effect. It will be in force for 35 years. It is critical that leaders continue to make the case for permanent strong protection for the Ross Sea and other Southern Ocean areas.
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. This proposal will be up for discussion and hopeful agreement in 2018.
- A proposal has been put forward by Australia, France and the EU to put in place a system of MPAs in the East Antarctic.
- The proposal has been around since 2011, so the time is certainly ripe for action.
- 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.
- Unfortunately, in October 2017 the proposal did not get the consensus needed at CCAMLR, with only 2 countries (Russia and China) blocking agreement. Both have current or historical fishing interests in the region.
- Australia and France are set to take a strengthened proposal forward again this year, which will hopefully give enough time to generate further international diplomatic action.
ANTARCTIC PENINSULA (DOMAIN 1) MPA
- The Antarctic Peninsula region is one of superlatives. It is the region most disproportionately affected by climate change, receives the vast majority of tourists in Antarctica (around 38,000 annually), hosts a wide array of research stations and projects, and is home to the world’s largest Antarctic krill fishery.
- While scientists have observed increases of a few whale populations in the region, due to the moratorium on whaling that once decimated these populations, we’re now seeing declines in some penguin species (Adelie and Chinstrap) as well as seals.
- Climate change is believed to be the primary culprit for this due to decreases in sea ice, which form a primary winter habitat for krill, penguins and seals.
- Concentrated krill fishing in coastal areas is decreasing the local availability of krill, thus putting added pressure on krill dependent species (penguins, seals primarily, as well as whales).
- A marine reserve in this region must safeguard critical habitat for krill spawning in the southern regions, as well as establish large buffer zones in coastal areas to minimize fishing impacts on land-based predators.
- Argentina and Chile are driving efforts to develop an MPA proposal for consideration at CCAMLR, with support from data provided by the US and UK, expected to be submitted for consideration in October.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN?
- The protection of the Southern Ocean is a defining issue for our time, 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 Ross Sea protected area which 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 ensure the protection of East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula by 2020 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.
- We need to support campaigns and public awareness-raising initiatives that support the protection of this important area, such as the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition’s efforts combined with the efforts of several leaders and NGOs to campaign for Antarctica 2020: 3 very large reserves in the waters of East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula.
 UNEP patron of the Ocean, Ocean Unite Network member and endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh is working with Ocean Unite Founder, José María Figueres and Ocean Unite Network leaders including Russian ice-hockey champion and Duma member, Slava Fetisov campaign Antarctica 2020.