The Ross Sea region is one of the most pristine environments in the world. After five years of failed negotiations, conservationists worldwide have now reason to celebrate. During the Antarctica conservation meeting in Hobart in the end of October delegates from 24 countries and the European Union have finally agreed that the Ross Sea in Antarctica, will become the world's largest marine protected area. The new protected area will cover 1.55 million square kilometres.

Antarctica is home to several penguin and whale species and the Ross Sea Region is considered one of the most pristine marine environment. At their annual meeting in Hobart the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources finally approved the proposal for a marine protected area in the Ross Sea Region. Picture: Katja Riedel
Antarctica is home to several penguin and whale species and the Ross Sea Region is considered one of the most pristine marine environment. At their annual meeting in Hobart the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources finally approved the proposal for a marine protected area in the Ross Sea Region. Picture: Katja Riedel

Representatives from 25 governments gathered in Hobart in October 2016 to address three proposed marine protected areas, amounting to more than five million square kilometres of Antarctic waters. After years of negotiations the Commission for the Conservation of Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) reached consensus on a New Zealand/United States proposal to establish a large-scale marine protected area in the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. The new protected area will cover roughly 1.55 million square kilometres, of which 1.12 million square kilometres, 72 percent, will be a no fishing zone. The agreement will enter into force on 1 December 2017.

“CCAMLR made history today by declaring the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea, protecting penguins, seals, whales and countless other creatures,” said Andrea Kavanagh, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts Antarctic and Southern Ocean work. “This decision shows that CCAMLR takes its role as protector of Antarctic waters seriously.”

For many animals Antarctica is a nursery like for this Southern elephant seal baby. Because of the high productivity of the Southern Ocean many animals give birth to their young here. Picture: Katja Riedel
For many animals Antarctica is a nursery like for this Southern elephant seal baby. Because of the high productivity of the Southern Ocean many animals give birth to their young here. Picture: Katja Riedel

Mike Walker, Project Director of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, said the deal was an important milestone for ocean conservation, but urged countries to go further. “For the first time, countries have put aside their differences to protect a large area of the Southern Ocean and international waters,” Walker said. “The limited 35-year restriction for protection of the Ross Sea contradicts the scientific advice that marine protection should be long-term. Nevertheless, we are confident that the significant benefits of protecting the Southern Ocean will soon be clear and the international community will act to safeguard this special place long into the future.”

The Ross Sea is one of the last intact marine ecosystems in the world, home to penguins, Weddell seals, Antarctic toothfish, and a unique type of killer whale. The region is critical for scientific research, for studying how marine ecosystems function and understanding the impacts of climate change on the ocean. Millions of people around the world have joined the global call for large-scale marine protection in Antarctica.

Adelie penguins feed on krill which is a keystone species of the Antarctic ecosystem and staple diet of many other animals. It is due to the krill that red penguin guano is covering all the rocks around colonies. Picture: Katja Riedel
Adelie penguins feed on krill which is a keystone species of the Antarctic ecosystem and staple diet of many other animals. It is due to the krill that red penguin guano is covering all the rocks around colonies. Picture: Katja Riedel

“This is a victory for the whales, toothfish, and penguins that live in the Ross Sea, as well as for the millions of people who supported this effort,” said John Hocevar, a marine biologist with Greenpeace. “We urge the international community to take notice and designate additional, permanent protections in other areas of the Antarctic Ocean and around the world.”

“This would not have been possible without Russia joining with other countries to achieve today’s historic decision to protect the Ross Sea. The governments of the United States and New Zealand should also be commended for their tireless work these past six years,” added Kavanagh. Last year, Russia and China dragged the chain on the agreement, but did indicate they could support it in the future. This year's proposal did require some changes to gain unanimous support, but the ministry said the boundaries of the protected area remained unchanged.

The new marine protected area in the Ross Sea will cover roughly 1.55 million square kilometres. Picture: New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade
The new marine protected area in the Ross Sea will cover roughly 1.55 million square kilometres. Picture: New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade

Two additional proposals for marine protected areas in East Antarctic waters and the Weddell Sea are still being discussed. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance is advocating to ensure that these proposals are based on the best available science. “Although there was not a decision on the proposed protection of the Weddell Sea and the East Antarctic this year, we are confident that these areas will be protected in the coming years, adding to the system of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean,” said Walker.

The algae rich underside of ice floes in the Antarctic Ocean are the habitat of the krill which is at the base of the food web in Antarctica. Picture: Katja Riedel.
The algae rich underside of ice floes in the Antarctic Ocean are the habitat of the krill which is at the base of the food web in Antarctica. Picture: Katja Riedel.

Source: Antarctic Ocean Alliance