Nations fail to agree on expanding protection of Antarctic waters

Campaigners lament a missed opportunity as talks on expanding marine protected areas are pushed to 2021
<p>Chinstrap penguins photographed this year in Antarctica (Image © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace)</p>

Chinstrap penguins photographed this year in Antarctica (Image © Christian Åslund / Greenpeace)

Delegates attending an international meeting last month failed to agree on establishing new marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean. Despite a sense of urgency highlighted by conservationists due to climate change and the growth of fishing in the Antarctic, discussions will now be pushed to next year.

Twenty-five countries and the EU participated in the 39th annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources (CCAMLR), which regulates the use of resources in the region. In 2002, the commission agreed to create a network of MPAs but progress has been slow.

The meeting was shorter than usual and fully online due to the pandemic, which meant less time to negotiate and no informal meeting opportunities, such as dinners and cocktails. Delegates had connectivity issues and the agenda was limited, with MPA discussions placed under “any other business”.

Most of the time was used to discuss evidence presented by New Zealand that a Russian vessel was fishing illegally in protected waters. They couldn’t reach a consensus to add it to CCAMLR’s list of vessels involved in illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, so it was allowed to keep fishing.

“We are very disappointed and frustrated with the whole process. Conservation is the mandate of CCAMLR and they [MPAs] deserve a full discussion,” said Andrea Kavanagh, director of Pew’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean work. “Russia negotiated to have the meeting organised this way and derail the discussion.”

Three proposals, no agreement

Countries had three MPA proposals on the table but none moved forward. The oldest, which was thought to have the best chance, is to protect three blocks of ocean and ocean floor along East Antarctica, an area rich in cold-water corals that provides foraging grounds for penguins. It has been discussed for eight years in a row.

Also on the table was the creation of a 1.8 million km2 MPA in the area of the Weddell Sea, adjacent to the Antarctic peninsula. It was originally proposed by the EU and then supported by other countries. If created, it would be the largest nature reserve anywhere in the world.

Finally, there was a proposal by Argentina and Chile to create an MPA to the west of the Antarctic peninsula. The area is particularly vulnerable to tourism impacts, fishing activity and global warming. Up to 75% of all Antarctic krill is located there, a fact that moved both countries to work together.

“The lack of progress in establishing MPAs and actively addressing climate change is particularly worrisome and casts doubt on the leadership of the Convention,” said Rodolfo Werner, senior adviser at the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), who has been attending CCAMLR meetings for more than 10 years.

Countries agreed on the first Antarctic MPA in 2009, an area of 94,000 km2 below the South Orkney Islands. Then, in 2016, they successfully negotiated the world’s largest marine park, covering 1.55 million km2 in the Ross Sea. (It’s called a marine park because unlike a permanent MPA, its status will need to be renewed after 35 years.)

But since then negotiations have been tricky. A new MPA requires a consensus of all 26 commission members. While some countries want no-take MPAs (where extractive industries are banned), others want to maintain their fishing rights, mainly China and Russia.

Still, there were some reasons to be optimistic this year. Australia and Uruguay signed up to co-sponsor the Weddell Sea MPA, while Norway and Uruguay did the same with the East Antarctica proposal. Most countries also joined a statement endorsing the importance of protected areas, which was put forward by the EU.

Antarctic waters protection: Looking forward

Delegates will meet again at the same time next year to continue discussing the proposals to protect the Southern Ocean. The meeting, which could be face-to-face instead of online if the pandemic allows, will coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, which regulates international relations in Antarctica.

Conservationists believe the anniversary could create momentum to finally approve the three MPA proposals that are currently on the table. There’s no time to waste. Only a little over 7.5% of the ocean is currently protected by MPAs, with experts and organisations calling for 30% to be protected by 2030.

We need senior politicians and heads of state to make ocean protection a priority

“We all need to pull together in these difficult times. Climate change and the biodiversity crisis are not going away. Illegal fishing needs to be stamped out. We have the solutions and commitments to protect the Southern Ocean and its iconic wildlife. It’s time we give the world hope,” said Chris Johnson from WWF.

The victory of Joe Biden in the US election could help in this regard. Back in 2016, the Ross Sea protected area was established largely thanks to high-level bilateral meetings between former president Obama and President Xi Jinping. Since then, China has been reluctant to give the green light to new MPA.

A better relationship between the two countries might help negotiations move forward. Nengye Liu, associate professor at Australia’s Macquarie Law School, said: “The US is a very powerful actor and if it engages with the existing international system that will probably make a difference,” he said.

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean contain approximately 90% of the world’s ice and around 70% of its freshwater. Its currents are responsible for sustaining marine biodiversity throughout the world, including Antarctic krill who move from the surface of the ocean to its depths, carrying carbon away from our atmosphere.

Creating a network of marine reserves offers the opportunity to conserve and study largely untouched natural areas, experts agree. Although they do little to reduce the effects of climate change, MPAs can help ensure other activities such as fishing don’t exacerbate the impacts in the region.

“Despite the best efforts of many national delegates in fighting for Antarctic protection, it’s clear that over the next year we need senior politicians and heads of state to make ocean protection a priority. We just can’t afford to see the same lack of progress in 2021,” said Will McCallum, head of oceans at Greenpeace UK.