Crucial Antarctica conservation talks start next week

International commission to reconsider proposals for new marine protected areas in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica

An orca surfaces for air near the coast of Antarctica. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — For only the second time in its 32-year history, an international Antarctic conservation commission will meet outside its regularly scheduled session, and stakes are huge, as delegates from around the world will decide whether to protect the seas around Antarctica from unsustainable fishing.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources will meet in Bremerhaven, Germany starting July 15 specifically to continue discussions on two proposals for the establishment of marine protected areas: One for the Ross Sea region, submitted by New Zealand and the United States, and the second for waters off East Antarctica, submitted by Australia, France and the European Union. The two proposals would establish marine protections across about 1.2 million square miles of the Southern Ocean, totaling an area about the size of India.

The proposed reserve in the pristine Ross sea, would be the size of Alaska, nearly doubling the documented 849,000 square miles of fully protected ocean worldwide. The rules would ban fishing and other extractive activities to protect biodiversity and preserve the area’s value as a reference area against which to measure global warming changes and other impacts.

About 1.6 million square miles of marine protected areas proposed for the East Antarctic also could be designated. Although fishing would not be banned outright in the East Antarctic area, no fishing is taking place there, and any request to start would require international consensus.

“This could be the decision of the decade for our oceans,” said Andrea Kavanagh, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Southern Ocean campaign. “If countries work together next month, we will double the conservation areas of the ocean, and protect the world’s most pristine seas.”

The scientific basis for creating the world’s largest marine reserves includes the following findings: Currents in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean sustain three-quarters of the Earth’s marine life; marine reserves provide long-term economic benefits; and Antarctic seas are critical to science.

The CCAMLR considered the proposals in late 2012, but couldn’t reach full agreement on the process to make the designations. Nevertheless, conservation advocates said that there was progress, with the U.S. and New Zealand finding common ground on the Ross Sea plan.

But several other countries said they needed 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,” said Paul Gamblin, marine protected area manager for the WWF, in an interview last year. “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.


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