Antarctica conservation group fails to reach deal

Proposals for Ross Sea, East Antarctica marine preserves falter at annual CCAMLR meeting; special session set for next summer in Germany

New preserves would protect biodiversity. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Proposals to create vast new marine preserves in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica floundered during the final stages of an international meeting in Hobart, Tasmania this week, as several major stakeholders couldn’t get completely comfortable with the procedural steps required to create those protected areas.

Despite the fact that there was no formal agreement, conservation advocates said there were some significant steps forward during the talks, according to Paul Gamblin, marine protected area manager for the WWF. Gamblin said several countries participating in the talks also needed a bit more time to understand the scientific basis for the far-reaching conservation proposals.

“As far as East Antarctica, it’s not that there was opposition to the idea … but some concerns about the detail and process, what fishing could happen where … there was some discomfort with the process around that,” Gamblin said. “Fishing is one of the issues on which countries want to be in a position where they want to be comfortable with the advice from scientists,” he said.

According to the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, fishing by illegal, unregulated and unreported  vessels, often using flags of convenience is on the rise. In some parts of the Southern Ocean, unsustainable fishing methods such as deep sea gillnets are in use in some areas. These gillnets can reach more than 100 kilomters in length and are a threat to almost all marine life, including marine mammals and non-targeted fish species such as rays.

Growing demand for krill as a health supplement and as food for fish farm salso poses a risk, exacerbating potential impacts to krill from global warming. Climate change has already been linked to a significant decline in krill numbers — up to 80 percent in one region around the Scotia Sea, according to a 2004 study. Krill is an essential part of the food chain that supports the region’s whales, penguins, seals, fish and birdlife.

The proposals would include large no-take areas aimed at protecting some of the most intact ecosystems remaining. Outside the reserves, management would focus on sustainable harvests of marine resources, including toothfish and krill.

Poor management and extensive harvesting of toothfish and species like krill could threaten the balance of Antarctica’s unique and fragile ocean ecosystems.

The Ross Sea continental shelf encompasses one of the most productive ecosystems of the Southern Ocean — it’s one of the few places in the world that retains its full community of top-level predators and a unique community of species, including one-third of the world’s Adélie penguins, one quarter of the world population of emperor penguins, half of the Southern Pacific population of Weddell seals, and half of the world’s Ross Sea killer whales.

In the end, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources decided to hold an unprecedented mid-year meeting in Germany to try and finalize the conservation proposals.

Gamblin said that agreement between the U.S. and New Zealand on the Ross Sea proposal was a big step forward during the recent meeting, as the two countries hadn’t been able to find common ground previously.

“The decision to call an extra meeting of the Commission to deal with this issue next year demonstrates the gravity of the situation and gives us some hope that a breakthrough can still be found,” Gamblin said.

“WWF has directly supported years of scientific work to underpin rational MPA creation in the Southern Ocean. The special meeting in 2013 must be the last word on the proposals for the Ross Sea and East Antarctica. Then the work must continue on the rest of the MPA network. Time is slipping away,” he continued.

In 2010, WWF awarded CCAMLR its highest accolade – the prestigious Gift to the Earth award – in recognition of its commitment to establish the world’s biggest marine protected area system around Antarctica by 2012.


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