Antarctic reserve talks falter, delaying conservation efforts

Countries with major fishing industries, led by Russia, scuttled talks about the creation of a massive new marine preserve in the Antarctic.

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    An Adelie penguin stands atop a block of melting ice near the French station at Dumont d’Urville in East Antarctica in 2010. Russia and Ukraine have again scuttled plans to create the world's largest ocean sanctuary in Antarctica.
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Efforts to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in the Antarctic Ocean have failed for the second time in two years after nations with major fishing industries, led by Russia, blocked any consensus, according to news reports Friday.

The failure by the 25-member Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to reach an agreement after a 10-day meeting in Hobart, Australia, freezes the effort to protect millions of square miles of ocean in the Ross Sea and the East Antarctic Coast until October 2014, when delegates will try again.

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"It's very frustrating for most members," Swedish delegate Bo Fernholm told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "I think most members were here and thought that we would be able to get the [marine protected areas], at least one this time."

A proposal originally drafted last year by an international NGO called the Antarctic Oceans Alliance and backed by the United States and New Zealand would have set aside 1.4 million square miles of waters, split among 19 areas scattered around Antarctica's periphery. The plan would have doubled the area of protected oceans worldwide and prevented fishing and mineral exploration in those ecosystems, which are home to nearly 10,000 unique species, including Adelié and emperor penguins, colossal squid, Weddell seals, and others.

The proposal, however, drew opposition from Russia and Ukraine. Other countries, led by Norway, China and Japan, called for smaller reserves and a “sunset clause” that would allow for the possibility of eventual commercial exploitation of the areas, The New York Times reports.

The countries are among the 25 members of the Commission for Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. Created as part of the Antarctic Treaty System, the commission was formed in 1980 to set conservation policy in the Southern Ocean. In order to pass new regulations, however, all 200 delegates representing the member nations must reach consensus; many of them represent conflicting industrial interests. 

Over the summer, it became clear that the larger proposal was facing opposition from Russia and others. Over objections of environmental groups, New Zealand and the US offered to reduce the size of the proposed sanctuary by 40 percent.

“What is so disturbing is that this is the new starting line, and the permanence of it is now up for negotiation,” Andrea Kavanagh, a spokeswoman for the US-based Pew Charitable Trusts on Antarctic issues, told the Times.

Many of the countries resisting the formation of these reserves had pledged at a 2010 UN conference to set aside 10 percent of the world's oceans for conservation by 2020. 

But Russia’s Federal Fisheries Agency has said the reserve would affect Russia’s fishing interests in the Ross Sea.

According to The New York Times:

"Most of the fishing activity in the Ross Sea now is directed at the slow-maturing Patagonian toothfish, often marketed as Chilean sea bass. But there is growing interest in harvesting krill, the tiny creatures that are a pillar of the Southern Ocean ecosystem, and many fishing nations do not want to seal off any future possibilities as fish stocks elsewhere in the world are depleted."

In many countries, a precautionary approach to natural resource management is increasingly common, meaning that when an action (like industrial fishing) is suspected of causing harm to people or an environment, the burden of proof that it will not cause harm falls on the party undertaking it. 

But the fact that the CCMLR's 200 members must reach consensus to pass conservation laws, forces the commission to cater to its least conservation-minded members.

The Southern Ocean has received so much conservation attention both because of the animal inhabitants who depend on it directly and because scientists regard it as vital to the health of marine life worldwide. An estimated 75 percent of all aquatic life is sustained by the nutrient-rich waters of the Southern Ocean, which are transported by currents into the northern hemisphere, according to the Guardian.

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