A proposal to create the world’s largest wildlife reserve – a marine sanctuary in the Antarctic Ocean – has just been blocked by three nations. The reserve would have covered a vast 1.8 million square kilometers (700,000 square miles), protecting countless marine creatures including blue whales, leopard seals, orcas, and penguins.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) recently held talks in Hobart, Tasmania. While 22 members including the US, UK, and the European Union voted in favor of the huge ocean reserve, China, Russia, and Norway did not. The proposal needed unanimous support from all members to go ahead.
“This was a historic opportunity to create the largest protected area on Earth in the Antarctic: safeguarding wildlife, tackling climate change and improving the health of our global oceans,” said Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic Campaign.
“Twenty-two delegations came here to negotiate in good faith but, instead, serious scientific proposals for urgent marine protection were derailed by interventions which barely engaged with the science and made a mockery of any pretense of real deliberation.”
Protecting Antarctic waters isn’t just important for conserving threatened species, it could play a key role in the battle against climate change. Antarctica is a vital carbon store as its waters absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide. Krill help remove this carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by eating carbon-rich food close to the water’s surface. They then move downwards into cooler waters where they excrete the carbon they’ve consumed. These little crustaceans are also a key food source for whales and penguins.
The new proposal would have prevented industrial-scale fishing for krill in the area, a practice that – unsurprisingly – Norway, Russia, and China are heavily involved in.
“We’re running out of time and scientists are clear that we need to create marine sanctuaries across at least 30 percent of our oceans by 2030, to protect wildlife, ensure food security for billions and help to tackle climate change,” said Bengtsson. But while only 7 percent of our oceans are currently protected, hope is not lost.
The UK recently urged the UN to protect 30 percent of the world’s seas by 2030, improving on the current target of 10 percent by 2020. This plan would involve the protection of ecosystems and species as well as the sustainable management of ocean resources like fish.
“The powerful call to scale up global marine protection… should serve as a guiding light for Member States around the world. Marine protection should be the rule, not the exception,” said head of UN Environment, Erik Sondheim.
“Particularly for the most vulnerable, high-traffic, and resource-rich marine habitats, the time for effective management and action on our oceans and seas is now.”