Last month, at the 36th annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, the 24 member states and the European Union struggled to make headway on long-standing plans to create a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) covering around 12% of Southern Ocean.
MPAs are an important instrument for preserving marine ecosystems and biodiversity, reducing the pressures posed by fishing, tourism, and invasive species. In Antarctica, that means protecting everything from whales and penguins, to the tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill, which are critical to supporting life in the Southern Ocean. MPAs are also valuable for scientific efforts aimed at measuring and assessing the impacts of climate change. By limiting the presence of ‘outside’ forces, it is much easier to take stock of the marine environment, monitor how it is changing, and discern the global implications.
CCAMLR first committed to establishing a network of marine parks in 2002. The first MPA was created in 2009, covering a 94,000 km2 area south of the South Orkney Islands. Further progress was made in 2016 with the creation of the Ross Sea Region MPA, the largest in the world (covering an area of 1.5 million km2), which enters into force on 1 December. The Ross Sea Region received a further boost last month after CCAMLR’s scientific body endorsed (although not yet adopted) a research and monitoring plan that aims to determine the MPA’s effectiveness by monitoring the environmental health of the protected area over the next 35 years.
The main goal this year though was to reach a consensus on establishing an MPA in East Antarctica. Originally, the proposal comprised an area of approximately 1.8 million km2. It has since shrunk by half, following several failed attempts to get it through CCAMLR. Nevertheless, despite many members being ready to adopt the East Antarctica proposal, it was still opposed by China and Russia last month.
Both countries have consistently blocked progress on MPAs around Antarctica. The Ross Sea Region MPA was only agreed after the United States brokered a substantial compromise, designed to alleviate the impact of the MPA on fishing rights, particularly those of Russia and China. Those same concerns (along with questions about how large MPAs can be effectively managed and monitored) have returned to frustrate the negotiations over East Antarctica, and there is a sense, perhaps, that Russia and China might not be ready to compromise again so soon after the Ross Sea agreement.
CCAMLR also looked at the more technical aspects of two other MPA proposals in Hobart. One of those was jointly proposed by Chile and Argentina and covers the Western Antarctic Peninsula.
The other, was a German-led proposal for the Weddell Sea, which will be even bigger than the Ross Sea Region MPA. Both of these proposals, together with the East Antarctica MPA, will be revisited in a year’s time, when it is hoped that the Weddell Sea MPA might be agreed.
Responding to recent questions raised in Parliament by James Gray MP, the UK Government confirmed it supports all three proposals (as well as further designations in the coming years), which, if implemented, would extend marine protection around Antarctica. The UK is a co-proponent of both the East Antarctic and Weddell Sea MPA proposals, and is also contributing scientific input into the development of the Western Antarctic Peninsula MPA.
Meanwhile, less remarked upon in the news media was the success the UK had in securing a consensus on designating the marine area newly exposed by the calving of the Larsen C ice shelf
(an area a quarter the size of Wales) as a Special Area of Scientific Study, preventing any fishing taking place there initially for two years (although this is likely to be extended until 2028). This was a significant agreement and may serve as an important precedent for responding to further impacts of regional warming.