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:

Changing Planet

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