Changing Planet

100% Pure? New Zealand’s Green Image Shows Cracks in Antarctic Fishing

New Zealand enjoys its green image, branding itself as “100% pure.” Yet when it was given an opportunity to make a truly bold move to protect a uniquely undisturbed marine ecosystem, it balked.

Last month, the NZ cabinet rejected a proposed U.S.-NZ plan to turn a large swath of the Ross Sea, which is part of the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, into a no-take marine reserve. The decision came after years of work — both from New Zealand and from the U.S., whose scientists and officials are also interested in protecting the Ross Sea. The reason? The compromise plan displaced more fishing than NZ was willing to accept.

(See our new fun explainer video on marine reserves, and how they can benefit fishermen.)

The Ross Sea has long been recognized as a place of special scientific and environmental interest. In 2008, a team of scientists analyzed human impacts on the world’s oceans and found that the Ross Sea was one of the least impacted large marine ecosystems remaining on Earth. The importance of this finding cannot be underestimated. While the Ross Sea is not entirely untouched, it does boast a foodweb that is in much the same state as it has been for centuries. Despite being only 2% of the Southern Ocean, the Ross Sea has more than a quarter of the world’s emperor penguins, almost one third of the world’s Adelie penguins, and almost half of the South Pacific Weddell seal population. There are not many places left where scientists can study these kinds of intact, thriving marine ecosystems, making the Ross Sea extremely valuable for science. Over 500 scientists have agreed that the Ross Sea’s continental shelf and slope should be made a marine reserve.

Photo: penguin swimming in the Ross Sea
An Adelie penguin in the Ross Sea. Photo copyright John Weller.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch. The Ross Sea isn’t only populated by the kind of cute animals that people love to protect. It also is home to the Antarctic toothfish, the Ross Sea’s top fish predator, which is better known as Chilean sea bass. Chilean sea bass sells for very high prices, and as a result several countries have established a fishery in the Ross Sea. The fishery plans to reduce the spawning biomass of Antarctic toothfish by half over the next several decades. If you know anything about how most fisheries are managed, this might not sound like a big deal. But this level of fishing will likely change the Ross Sea ecosystem, harming the very quality that makes it unique.

The Ross Sea fishery falls under the auspices of the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which manages all the fisheries in the Southern Ocean. CCAMLR was an early adopter of the ecosystem approach to management and has a reputation for making responsible, science-based decisions. Additionally, CCAMLR is in charge of designating marine protected areas (MPAs)  in the region. The 25 countries that are members of CCAMLR have collectively agreed to put in place a system of MPAs to protect key parts of the Southern Ocean. As seen by NZ’s recent actions, however, not all countries agree on what the balance between MPAs and fishing should be. New Zealand is one of the main countries fishing in the Ross Sea.

While it’s not exactly breaking news that countries like to protect lucrative industries, the Ross Sea fishery is a small portion of New Zealand’s overall fishing industry. Moreover, officials and scientists from both sides had worked very hard to come up with a joint proposal, and both had made significant compromises. Without a united proposal, it will be difficult for CCAMLR’s member countries to make any decisions about protecting the Ross Sea.

On the bright side, thanks in part to a documentary on the fight for the Ross Sea titled “The Last Ocean,” (see trailer at the top of this post) the issue has been garnering public attention in New Zealand. Usually, the workings of CCAMLR aren’t very interesting  — lots of dry information about the results of fish-tagging experiments. Creating MPAs and marine reserves are a more hot-button issue, particularly for New Zealand, with its strong stake in the fishery and an equally strong interest in maintaining the green image that draws many tourists. With any luck, it won’t just be Kiwis who get involved in this debate, though.

Antarctica and the Southern Ocean don’t belong to any single country, and decisions made about marine protection there should be in the best interests of all humankind. Scientists who have worked in the Ross Sea have said they think it’s one of the last places where they can learn about healthy marine ecosystems and therefore understand how to restore other less healthy areas of the oceans. It’s hard to put a price on those kinds of benefits.

Real protection for the Ross Sea might not happen this year. But there’s still time for Kiwis and others around the world to get involved. All too often, decisions about marine issues are made by relatively small numbers of people. What happens to the oceans affects everyone, however. It’s up to all of us to make sure that our governments make decisions that consider the long-term interests of the planet as well as the short-term gain of a few.

And here’s our new video that better explains marine reserves, courtesy of Mel the “very weird” fish:

Claire Christian is the Interim Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the Antarctic environment.
  • Grant Hill

    Sadly New Zealand is far from clean and green as people would have you believe. We still dump tonnes of 1080 on our national parks from helicopters in an attempt to control introduced species. Our rivers and coastlines are becoming more and more polluted. So, it should not be a surprise to the world that New Zealand too is chasing the mighty corporate dollar!! Not a good day to be a New Zealander.

  • Philippa Ross

    As the Great Great Great Grandaughter of Sir James Clarke Ross who discovered the Ross Sea – I am totally bewildered by the NZ governments cavalier attitude to preserving the worlds greatest treasure.
    The Ross Sea comes under the jurisdiction of the NZ government. The British government gave the Ross Dependency to NZ Governor General in 1923 by order in council. The Order in Council stipulates – ‘the part which the New Zealand Government had agreed to take in enabling His Majesty to exercise jurisdiction in and over the Ross Territory must be taken on behalf of the Empire as a whole and not specially in the interests of New Zealand.”
    As far as I can see, their decision is in the specific interests of NZ (well so they think) and ignores the empire.
    Toothfish are a delicacy that only the rich can afford to eat – so NZ governments ridiculous comment about looking after the economy is a load of codswallop (excuse the pun). Apart from which, three of the four fishing organisation in NZ who have permission to fish in the Ross Sea actually sub contract the work to countries like Korea. Hmmmm that’s really helping the NZ economy!
    How much more scientific research do they need before they recognise the fact that the planet is falling to pieces. The human race has squandered the earths resources, and now nature is doing what she does best to balance the effects.
    We need to keep this precious part of the world in tact if there is any hope of preserving a future for humanity.
    The Ross Sea is one of the ‘Hope spots’ that the world ocean guruette – Sylvia Earle of Mission Blue is helping.
    Watch her speak to clarify the effect a healthy ocean life has on human life
    The motto on the Ross family crest says; ‘Spes Aspera Levat’ which means ‘Hope lightens difficulties’.
    You can help lift the hope to overcome the difficulties the NZ government are creating by lending your support to the Antarctic Ocean Alliance and sign the petition to the government.

  • Adam Hughes

    This is the most informative article I’ve read all year.

  • Matthew

    I’m all for the protection of this area. But just to keep this discussion realistic, I thought I would put in a reminder that New Zealand’s marine reserves cover over 7% of its territorial sea, one of the highest figures in the world. When compared to the world as a whole, which protects around 0.5 – 1% of it’s oceans (depending on the authority you get the figure from), New Zealand doesn’t seem quite as bad.

  • J Clark

    Walk along most urban coastal beaches in NZ and you will find it littered with drink bottles, cans, plastic netting, fishing line, straws, bottle caps, polystyrene, fast food wrappers etc etc. There is nothing clean and green about NZ. A few of our rivers are on the top 10 list for polluted waterways. Our vehicle emissions standards are way behind many other countries. I think we should drop the 100% Pure moniker until we can actually live up to it.

  • Nathan

    Shamefully, New Zealand was the only country in the world to vote against the protection of our critically endangered Maui’s dolphin at a global conservation summit earlier this month. It put the interests of a small fishery ahead of the survival of an endangered species. This action has become typical of the way the Government allows its short-sighted business growth agenda to ride rough shod over environmental protection.

    See for more detail:

  • Gary Kearns

    This wikipedia entry gives a good over view of the toothfish fishery and its management.

    Heres a little piece that is relevant to this thread.
    ” As most toothfish fisheries are managed in accordance with CCAMLR regulations and conservation measures, it should be noted that CCAMLR adopts an “ecosystem approach” which requires that all other living resources of the Southern Ocean are treated as an integrated system where effects on predator, prey and related species are considered, and decisions on sustainable harvesting levels are made on the basis of sound, internationally peer reviewed scientific advice.”

    • Hi Gary,
      That article is about Patagonian toothfish, which is a different species from Antarctic toothfish. They are related but aren’t exactly the same. There are a lot of unknowns about Antarctic toothfish still. Also, regardless of how sustainable the fishery in the Ross Sea is, it has some unique characteristics that merit special protection. As with terrestrial national parks, MPAs and reserves are chosen based on a combination of scientific and other values. CCAMLR is in many respects more advanced than other fisheries management bodies – but they have still agreed that MPAs and marine reserves are an appropriate and necessary management tool. Any fishery is going to have some ecosystem impacts, and there is a case to be made that it is desirable to avoid any such impacts in the Ross Sea so as to preserve it as a natural laboratory for science.

  • Bruce Tutty

    “New Zealand has submitted a proposal to establish a Marine Protected Area in the Ross Sea region that will cover roughly 2.5 million square kilometres; an area nine times the size of New Zealand.” –

    Anyone else willing to forfeit fishing rights in an area nine times the size of their own country?

  • Barbara Maas

    NZ’s fishing industry has had a very firm grip on successive governments for many years. This also becomes apparent in NZ itself, where set netting (commercial and recreational) and trawling have decimated endemic Maui’s dolphins from around 1000 to less than 55 adults- that’s less than 20 breeding females. Yet the NZ government continues to drag its heals, ignores the science and gives credence to outlandish claims by the industry, which denies responsibility for the animals demise. At the recent IUCN World Conservation Congress, NZ was the only country amongst hundreds of other parties to vote against effective protection of the last handful of Maui’s dolphins by excluding harmful fishing methods from the dolphins’ range to prevent their extinction. New Zealand’s reputation as an environmentally responsible nation is crumbling. As more Maui’s dolphins die, NZ’s symbolic fern is wilting. We need strong international support if we are to stand a chance of saving this species. This would be the first marine cetacean to be driven from our world by humans. Even the whalers didn’t manage that! To find out more, please visit You can also join us on Thank you.

  • Fishing tours

    Nice video..I am amazed to watch it… As with terrestrial national parks, MPAs and reserves are chosen based on a combination of scientific and other values.

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