How Antarctica's Ross Sea became world's largest marine reserve

World's largest marine reserve: The Ross Sea will become off-limits for any kind of wildlife or mineral extraction, after five years of negotiations.

Frank Roedel/Alfred Wegener Institute/File
Icebergs float along the coast of Antarctica, home of the world's newest and largest marine reserve.

Antarctica’s Ross Sea became the world’s largest protected area on Friday, after a multi-national agreement to preserve one of the most pristine ecosystems on the planet. 

The Ross Sea will be designated a "no-take" zone, putting everything from minerals to marine life off limits to extraction. It’s a jewel of biodiversity and a refuge for many species whose numbers are in decline elsewhere. About half of the world’s type C killer whales live there, along with 40 percent of Adelie penguins, 30 percent of Antarctic petrels, and 25 percent of emperor penguins, according to the United Nations commission for marine conservation.

"I'm absolutely overjoyed," said Lewis Pugh, UN patron for the oceans. "This is a crucial first step in what I hope will be a series of marine protected areas around Antarctica, and in other parts of the High Seas around the world."

Negotiations between 24 UN member nations and the European Union had dragged on for nearly five years, blocked by Russia, whose delegates argued that more evidence was needed to justify a conservation zone. Russian fishing vessels currently ply the area for sea bass, and Antarctica holds a special place in the country’s history, having been discovered in 1820 by Russian mission sent by a czar, noted The Guardian in June.

Russia's change of heart follows China's reversal on the proposal last year. It's one of a handful of conservationist gestures by the government of president Vladimir Putin, which expanded Russia’s Arctic National Park by some 18 million acres in September – on the same day that President Obama designated a new marine reserve around Hawaii – and declared 2017 the Year of Ecology in January.

The environmental strides may also stem from a diplomatic campaign by conservationists and UN authorities that included petitions, dinners in Moscow, Mr. Pugh's awareness-raising "Speedo diplomacy" with plunges into sub-zero waters, and an appeal by Desmond Tutu, Archbishop of Cape Town. The archbishop released a video message in June to acknowledge Antarctica’s geopolitical resonance, including the multi-nation agreement in 1957 to preserve the continent as a research zone free from politics or territorial conflict. 

"For me, Antarctica is a symbol of peace," said Archbishop Tutu. "At the height of the cold war, the Soviet Union, the USA, and 10 other nations that governed the continent, including my own, put aside their differences. And they had the foresight to set aside the continent as a place dedicated to peace and science." 

Sergei Ivanov, Putin's former chief of staff and new special representative for environmental protection, ecology, and transport, released a statement welcoming the deal. 

"Russia has a proud history of exploration and science in Antarctica. In this time of political turbulence in so many parts of the world, we are pleased to be part of this collaborative international effort to safeguard the Ross Sea," he said. 

The agreement will sunset in 35 years, a period that China considered too long for such designations and conservationists thought too short, citing the long lifespan of the Ross Sea’s wildlife. WWF-Australia ocean science manager Chris Johnson told CNN the compromise caps a "long, ongoing, challenging debate."

"While we're very excited about this," he said, "we don't want it to become a precedent for other marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean."

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