We like to think of the Antarctic continent as a vast untouched landscape, free from the influence of humans. One of the very last true frontiers.
Unfortunately, while this might be true for much of the frigid interior, the seas surrounding the southern continent are anything but pristine, and are frequently visited by fishing and whaling fleets. This has prompted environmentalists to propose a huge new wildlife reserve five times the size of Germany.
In an attempt to try and preserve as much of this beautiful but fragile ecosystem, efforts are now underway to create the largest wildlife reserve in the world. The plan is to protect huge swaths of water surrounding Antarctica, encompassing an expansive 1.8 million square kilometers (700,00 square miles) of land and sea around the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula.
The campaign is being headed by Greenpeace, following previous failures to agree on the strong marine protection of East Antarctica. The proposal, which was submitted by the EU and already has serval nations' backing – including Germany and the United Kingdom – is to be placed in front of the Antarctic nations at the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources conference in Australia in October.
The biggest threat to this region of Antarctica is the commercial fishing of krill, the small crustaceans that form the basis of many food chains in the region, which is mainly sold for fish food. From the mighty blue whale to the sleek penguins and, in turn, the leopard seals that feed on them, krill underpins much of the life that thrives in the ice and snow.
“From great blue whales to vast colonies of Emperor and Adélie penguins, Antarctic wildlife is already under acute pressure from climate change and now industrial fishing vessels are vacuuming up the tiny shrimp-like krill which Antarctic life relies upon,” explained Frida Bengtsson, head of Greenpeace’s Antarctic campaign. “The fishing industry simply can’t be allowed to expand their operations and steal food from threatened penguins and whales. We now have a unique opportunity to make sure that doesn't happen.”
It is expected that the creation of the reserve will hinge on whether or not the three nations most heavily invested in the Antarctic krill fisheries – China, South Korea, and Russia – can be persuaded to back it.
From the offset, this might seem like a tricky thing to achieve, but similar (albeit smaller) reserves have already been created in Antarctica through international agreement, giving hope to those wanting to establish this new reserve.