Antarctica can hardly be considered an isolated continent of snow and ice anymore. It is still home to millions of Adélie penguins and emperor penguins, dozens of species of whales, a myriad of fish species and who knows what other amazing creatures. But its rich and vast resources are under threat. A warming ocean is causing Antarctica’s ice shelf to melt and human activity — fishing and tourism — is altering Antarctica and the ecosystem that has been home to so many species for centuries.
A little-known organization, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) — an international group whose members include Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., the U.K., Russia, China, Norway and France — is considering a proposal to turn 1.5 million square kilometers of ocean around the Antarctic into what would be the world’s largest marine sanctuary by blocking out fishing.
At a meeting to be held from July 11-17, the CCAMLR will be considering two proposals to create Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in the Antarctic. In such areas, human activity would be restricted and “no take” zones could be created.
Australia, France and the European Union are proposing that seven MPAs covering 1.63 million square kilometers — an area just about the size of Alaska — be created in East Antarctica. The U.S. and New Zealand are putting forth another proposal, which would create one MPA in the Ross Sea that would be larger, comprising 2.3 million square kilometers and with a “no take” area of 1.6 million square kilometers.
Were either of these proposals to be approved and implemented, Antarctica would be the site of a marine sanctuary larger than the one million square kilometer one created in Australia’s Coral Sea, east of the Great Barrier Reef.
As the Guardian explains, the CCAMLR was created in 1982 amid disputes about the unregulated fishing of krill. These small shrimp-like animals constitute the very “backbone to the Antarctic’s food web” as they are a food source for whales, seals, penguins, squid and fish. Thanks to the CCAMLR, there are catch limits for certain species (such as the toothfish, the largest midwater fish in the Southern Ocean) and also rules about the types of fishing methods and nets that can be used.
The July meeting is actually only the second time that the CCAMLR has convened. Given the differences between the two proposals, and that more than a few of its member countries are concerned about commercial fishing interests, some dispute is likely. As Steve Campbell, the campaign director at the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, says in the Guardian, “sticking points” are likely to be not only the size of the proposed protected areas, but also how long they will be protected for.
Campbell says that any sanctuary should be “permanent and at a large scale” and all the more so in view of ocean acidification and climate change’s effects on ocean temperature and sea level. As he points out, the Southern Ocean currently contains “some of the most intact marine ecosystems on the planet.” With nearly 30 percent of global fish stocks overexploited and some 57 percent fully exploited according to statistics from United Nations Food and Agriculture, there is all the more reason to leave those in the Antarctic untouched.
The need to act quickly and protect the Southern Ocean and other Antarctic waters is pressing. The Antarctic’s ice shelves are melting at such a rate that they are losing 1.3 trillion kilograms of ice a year, as recent study says. The ice shelves also lose a trillion kilograms of ice a year when sections break off to form icebergs.
The ice shelves’ accelerated melting due to the warmer temperatures in the ocean means that glaciers and, indeed, all of Antarctica, is undergoing profound changes with who knows what effects for the planet. The creation of a marine sanctuary is simply necessary, to protect the still-pristine environment of the Antarctic while we still can.
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