Last month, an agreement was reached at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to establish a marine protected area (MPA) in Antarctica’s Ross Sea region. The MPA, which was first proposed at CCAMLR by the United States and New Zealand in 2011, covers an area of 1.55m km2, making it the world’s largest designated area for marine protection. It will come into force on 1 December 2017.
Specifically, the MPA seeks to protect the Ross Sea region from the future threat of overfishing, while also promoting conservation, habitat protection and ecosystem monitoring. 72% of the area covered by the MPA will be a ‘no-take’ zone, within which all commercial fishing is prohibited. In other parts, the commercial harvesting of finfish and krill will be permitted, but at reduced levels (from current limits). However, the deal will not reduce the amount of fish that can be caught legally in the Ross Sea region of the Southern Ocean. What it will do is rebalance the current fishing effort to ensure that the bulk of fishing activity takes place away from the highly biodiverse Ross Sea shelf and slope.
The Ross Sea region is a globally important part of the Southern Ocean, in which about three-quarters of the nutrients that sustain life in the rest of the world’s oceans are produced. Moreover, the Ross Sea region ecosystem remains largely intact, meaning it is ideally suited for scientific studies of life in Antarctica, as well as the impacts of climate change.
The establishment of the CCAMLR MPA has generated global interest, and crucially, it establishes the principle within CCAMLR that further large-scale MPA designations should be possible in the future (the UK, together with the EU and its other EU Member States, are co-sponsors of other pending MPA proposals for the East Antarctic and the Weddell Sea).
The agreement to designate the Ross Sea region MPA was described by the CCAMLR Executive Secretary, Andrew Wright, as being the result of “an almost unprecedented level of international cooperation”. It has taken six years of negotiation by the 24 member states (including the UK) and the EU to reach a deal. Russia, in particular, had consistently opposed the Ross Sea region MPA because of the impacts it might have on Russia’s fishing interests. Russia was also anxious about the potential for MPA designations to be used to promote Antarctic sovereignty interests. Only through direct engagement between the US and Russia Foreign Ministers did Russia secure the reassurances it needed to join the consensus.
The most controversial aspect of the designation is that it expires 35 years after it comes into force, and a completely new MPA designation will need to be adopted by consensus at CCAMLR for the MPA to continue (Russia rejected a proposal for the designation to last for 50 years). A number of conservationists have voiced concerns about the precedent this sets for MPAs elsewhere in the world. Several CCAMLR designations, including the EU, commented that they would have preferred that the MPA had been established for an indefinite duration.
Even so, the UK CCAMLR Commissioner has stated that the Ross Sea region MPA presented a unique solution for a unique region.
The Ross Sea region marine protected area, including the boundaries of the General Protection Zone, composed of areas (i), (ii), and (iii), the Special Research Zone (SRZ), and the Krill Research Zone (KRZ). Depth contours are at 500, 1,500 and 2,500 m.