As part of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance’s (AOA) proposal to designate marine protected areas (MPA) and marine reserves across 19 regions around Antarctica, the AOA today launched its new report titled Antarctic Ocean Legacy: Towards Protection of the Weddell Sea Region. The findings of the report aim to contribute towards ongoing scientific and policy work – currently led by Germany and Russia – on the region, which is located south of the Atlantic Ocean. The Weddell Sea region is renowned for having one of the most intact ecosystems left on earth and for being a major engine of global ocean circulation.

The Weddell Sea should become a Nature Reserve according to various stakeholders
The Weddell Sea should become a Nature Reserve according to various stakeholders

“Recognizing the ecological importance of the Weddell Sea, Germany in collaboration with Russia, is leading the process that will bring about the protection of this crucial area. AOA supports this collaboration and welcomes Russia’s commitment to implementing marine protected areas,” said Steve Campbell, AOA Campaign Director. By providing protection for the areas highlighted in the new AOA report, as well as through the application of the precautionary approach, the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) would effectively preserve areas that collectively capture a wide and representative range of species, habitats and ecosystems in the Weddell Sea region – from the top of the water column to the seafloor, and including key biodiversity hotspots.

Emperors are typical for the Weddell Sea. The location of their colonies around the Weddell Sea are known. PolarNEWS organizes a trip to the northernmost of them, on Snow Hill Island.
Emperors are typical for the Weddell Sea. The location of their colonies around the Weddell Sea are known. PolarNEWS organizes a trip to the northernmost of them, on Snow Hill Island.

“Large, fully protected marine reserves are essential to ensure that the incredible biodiversity of the Weddell Sea remains intact,” said Andrea Kavanagh, who directs Antarctic marine reserve work for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “The commission’s member countries have a duty to establish comprehensive protections for Antarctic waters, but they have not been able to designate the Ross Sea and East Antarctic reserves despite years of meetings and discussions.  We welcome the collaboration between Germany and Russia on the Weddell Sea proposal and hope this signals a break in the logjam at the commission meeting this October.”

Ice-bound, wild and remote, the Weddell Sea has often been inaccessible to humans, but as research has increased over the past few decades, a picture of a vibrant marine ecosystem – sustained by a combination of currents, seafloor features and ice – has emerged.

The Weddell Sea is difficult to access for visits. Only the northernmost areas on the peninsula with large icebergs are accessible for conventional expedition cruises.
The Weddell Sea is difficult to access for visits. Only the northernmost areas on the peninsula with large icebergs are accessible for conventional expedition cruises.

“Protecting the Weddell Sea in a network of large-scale marine reserves will help krill populations and higher predators like whales, seals and Emperor penguins to continue thriving. It will also help ensure that the region remains resilient in the face of ocean acidification, climate change and increased fishing interests,” said Bob Zuur, manager of WWF’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean Initiative.

Sea feathers in the Weddell Sea. Those cnidarians also flourish on soft bottoms. However, they prefer hard bottom substrates like rocks. Photo credit: Julian Gutt, AWI
Sea feathers in the Weddell Sea. Those cnidarians also flourish on soft bottoms. However, they prefer hard bottom substrates like rocks. Photo credit: Julian Gutt, AWI

Climate Change

In addition, the report identifies the Weddell Sea as a region that is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and ocean acidification and notes examples of changes which are already occurring, including a sharp contrast between the western and eastern sectors. The western sector adjacent to the West Antarctic Peninsula, considered as one of the fastest warming areas on the planet, is experiencing both warming conditions and decreasing sea ice. The eastern sector, however, is experiencing growing sea ice over the past few decades, contributing significantly to the general increase in Southern Ocean sea ice extent. “Creating new MPAs in important ecosystems such as the Weddell Sea is part of the critical pathway forward needed to sustain a resilient Southern Ocean, providing Antarctica  with much needed support in the face of climate change predictions,” said Mark Epstein, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) Executive Director.

Sea anemones also grow in the cold waters of the Weddell Sea, especially on rocks. Photo credit: Julian Gutt, AWI
Sea anemones also grow in the cold waters of the Weddell Sea, especially on rocks. Photo credit: Julian Gutt, AWI

The Road to CCAMLR

The AOA urges States party to the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resource (CCAMLR) to designate large-scale, permanent and ecologically diverse MPAs in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea in 2014 and for Russia and Germany to submit a strong proposal for MPAs in the Weddell Sea for consideration in 2015. These will be critical, visionary and timely steps towards creating a network of MPAs and no-take marine reserves in the Southern Ocean, in line with CCAMLR’s previous commitments. “AOA hopes that Russia’s engagement in the Weddell Sea process suggests renewed Russian leadership on the East Antarctica and Ross Sea proposals as well,” continued Campbell.

Source: Antarctic Ocean Alliance, www.antarcticocean.org