After yesterday’s depressing news that we will possibly lose two-thirds of the world’s wildlife by 2020, we’re chalking this up as a big win for conservation.
The Ross Sea in Antarctica is to become the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA), the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has declared.
This means that around 1.57 million square kilometers (600,000 square miles) of the Southern Ocean will be protected from commercial fishing and drilling for the next 35 years, once the MPA comes into force in December 2017. Conservationists are hoping this will be the first of many no-fish zones in international waters.
All 24 countries at the meeting held in Australia agreed unanimously to the designation. The Ross Sea may only comprise about 2 percent of the Southern Ocean, but it is home to 38 percent of the world’s Adelie penguins and 6 percent of the oceans’ minke whales, as well as significant populations of seals, fish, krill, orcas, and petrels, to name just a few.
The sanctuary was first proposed back in 2011 but faced opposition from Russia. However, with President Putin declaring 2017 the Year of Ecology, they supported it this time around and the committee had a full house.
"This has been an incredibly complex negotiation which has required a number of Member countries bringing their hopes and concerns to the table at six annual CCAMLR meetings,” said CCAMLR Executive Secretary Andrew Wright in a statement. "A number of details regarding the MPA are yet to be finalized but the establishment of the protected zone is in no doubt and we are incredibly proud to have reached this point."
Although Antarctica itself has been protected by the Madrid Protocol since 1991, labeling it as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”, the areas around it have increasingly attracted commercial fishing fleets due to the abundance of krill, which is used for aquaculture, aquarium feeds, and fishing bait on a commercial scale.
Around 72 percent of the MPA will be a no-fishing zone, with the rest allowing some fishing for scientific research. This allows researchers to compare these areas with those that are open for fishing, in order to study the effects of commercial fishing, climate change, and other variables that affect the overall status of marine ecosystems.
This news also comes, rather serendipitously, on the 175th anniversary of the Ross Sea's discovery.
"The Ross family are euphoric that our family legacy has been honored in the 175th anniversary year since James first discovered the Ross Sea," Phillipa Ross, great, great, great granddaughter to Sir James Clark Ross, after whom the Ross Sea is named, told the BBC.
However, conservationists are warning that this is really just the start.
“This is a milestone for the conservation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean,” said Rod Downie, polar program manager for wildlife charity WWF in a statement. “The current measures only extend for 35 years. We want a permanent and enduring agreement for future generations that will safeguard the whales, penguins, seals and thousands of other amazing species that live there.”
The Ross Sea and Ice Shelf are included in the new marine protected area. Peter Hermes Furian/Shutterstock