China Blocks Protection of Antarctica’s Waters: Report

Picture of sea ice off Antarctica
The waters off East Antarctica are among the most pristine in the world, but fishers have long eyed them. Photo: John B. Weller/Antarctic Ocean Alliance


Some 1.2 million people asked the 25 member governments of the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR, composed of 24 countries and the EU) to take action during their annual meeting this week to conserve Antarctic marine ecosystems. Most of them answered this call and were prepared to work on proposals for marine protected areas and reserves in the ecologically important Ross Sea and East Antarctic regions. Ultimately, however, the Antarctic conservation aspirations of the majority of CCAMLR members were reportedly blocked by just a few countries, under the leadership of China.

CCAMLR requires consensus on all decisions, which allows a small minority to stifle the aims of the majority.

Since 2009, CCAMLR members and observer organizations have worked constructively to develop a system of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica. CCAMLR members pledged to develop this network to help fulfill the targets set by the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The WSSD targets call for countries around the world to establish representative networks of MPAs throughout the world’s oceans by 2012, and CCAMLR agreed that it would create such a network in the Southern Ocean by that time. This pledge was followed up with intensive scientific analysis, special workshops, and targeted diplomatic engagement.

At last year’s CCAMLR meeting, experts advised that the science on the ecosystems of the Ross Sea and East Antarctica was sufficient to move forward with creating MPAs in those areas. In the case of the Ross Sea, there is a long, impressive record of important scientific research, and the ecosystem itself has been identified as one of the most pristine marine ecosystems remaining on the planet. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a more ideal candidate for protection. East Antarctica is a vast region with many significant populations of seabirds and marine mammals plus unique bioregions – again, an obvious area to protect.

Nevertheless, the meeting closed on Thursday without any new MPAs designated, to the disappointment of the countries that had put forward proposals, the environmental community, and those 1.2 million people. So what happened? It seems some countries are putting economic gain over conservation, even though CCAMLR is first and foremost a conservation body (as its name implies). According to a report in The Australian, a major Australian newspaper, China blocked all MPA proposals this year due to its desire to maintain access to fishing. Interestingly enough, China does not currently fish in any of the areas proposed for MPAs, meaning that it would be prioritizing potential economic gain over certain conservation benefit.

CCAMLR’s meetings aren’t open to the public. An official meeting report is published but it is not a transcript of the proceedings, so many comments will not be reflected in the official record. However, other countries known to be skeptical of MPAs include Russia and the Ukraine. Science and conservation in the interest of the broader public is getting trumped by economic concerns in service of a few. The recalcitrant countries are not convinced by reams of scientific data from experienced researchers, and they are not too concerned about living up to their own promises. The result is that our oceans don’t get the protections they need, whether in the Southern Ocean or anywhere else.

The Southern Ocean is relatively remote, and fishing activity is less intense than it is in many parts of the world. If countries can’t protect the marine ecosystems here, then what hope is there for the rest of the world?

CCAMLR members have agreed to continue working on MPAs in advance of their 2013 meeting. The question remains whether all countries are truly willing to live up to their commitments and give the amazing biodiversity of the Southern Ocean the protection it deserves.

Miguel Angel Jorge is the Managing Director of 50in10, working to expand the organization's network of stakeholders, facilitate knowledge sharing about sustainable fisheries management, and help design and support collaborative fishery restoration programs implemented by the organization's partners around the world. Before joining 50in10, Miguel was Director of the National Geographic Society’s Ocean Initiative, which strives to restore the ocean’s health and productivity. He joined NGS in February of 2010. Previously Miguel worked as Director of WWF-International’s Marine Program, where he oversaw the their global strategies on fisheries and seafood, shipping and high-seas conservation policy. Before that Miguel worked extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean on marine, freshwater conservation and large-scale conservation planning processes, in the Gulf of California, Galapagos and Mesoamerican Reef. In his early career, Miguel worked in a wide array of areas, from aquaculture to refugee camp conflict mediator, to delegate at UN meetings. A native of Cuba, he has also lived in the US, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Switzerland. Miguel has a Masters in Marine Policy and a Bachelor’s in Aquatic Biology.
  • Karen

    It is unbelievable that this is even up for debate, it’s supposed to be a sanctuary yet there are still killing cetaceans in these waters. This sign the balance is tipping,not enough resources to support the 4 billion too many humans. They predict the entire fisheries will collapse worldwide in 2048, I think that is a generous estimate. What will the world look like when nations relying on marine life do when the ocean is empty? I’ll be long dead, but my kids won’t be – the world is going to be a very dark place unless some sort of flu or war reduces our population drastically.

  • typecheck

    According to Reuters, Ukraine and Russia also blocks the agreement. We don’t know the positions of the countries and how the plan is going to hurt fishing industries of all member countries. Singling out China in the title of the article just appears to be attempt to vilify China.

    This is not surprising though. National Geographic has been consistent in publishing articles with political aims at China for some time now.

    It is shame. NG should be be a fun read. Not any more.

  • sometruth

    NG sure is on a china bashing streak lately.

    So where’s the proof that “China led the block”? Oh, along the same lines as the last great climate conference, where failure was blamed on China, but in truth the US and many other nations had no intention of following through.

    Hearsay and rumors are published as fact for a mostly dumb American audience.

  • Ben Parsons

    At the core of all this and many other issues is Greed for Money. The people in control have the power to bend rules to suit and benefit themselves no matter how many numbers vote against. Conservationists taking direct action such as Sea Shepherd is the most effective way to achieve any order or justice for what the Oceans and our world needs and deserves.

  • Shaneyboi

    Have to agree with Karen. Our earth is’nt ready to support 4 billions+ humans. We are taking resources so fast that we don’t give them sufficient amount of time to replenish properly, and It will only get worse if we continue sky rocketing the human population. I thinks It’s time that every country followed China’s ‘one child policy’. For the sake of our childrens, childrens… future.

  • R

    Chinese ex-pat here. Screw China. Their desire for the ‘middle kingdom’ to be on par with the west will lead them to destroying any shred of the environment they can get near. It is disgusting and depressing.

  • khalid mahmood

    green peace pakistan
    we are org . working in pakistan green peace blood bank
    handicap people help us and handi cap animal . and save
    wildlife we are you help us
    ceo khalid mahmood
    green peace pakistan

  • Tokmol

    to mr typecheck: several questions:
    1) nevertheless, china IS blocking the agreement. Yes or no?
    2) chinese are the biggest consumers of slaughtered, illegal rhinoceros horns to aid their low sexual capacity. Yes or no?
    3) chinese claim other countries’ territories as their own, and yet are afraid to have these conflicts arbitrated by international law, yes or no?
    4) chinese communist leaders are also billionaires, negating the very essence of communism and making chinese communists quintessential hypocrites, yes or no?

  • Michael

    @sometruth: This point that China had the lead in this entire blockade comes from people who actually had been there at the meeting. Do you really think that this is just some crazy conspiracy theory? Please wake and forget that x-files s..t. This is the real world… oh, by the way: if you were convinced of what you’re saying, you wouldn’t have to hide behind a fake name and would also add your country to it, no?

  • Bob Berwyn

    I also didn’t hear China mentioned specifically in my interviews — http://summitcountyvoice.com/2012/11/02/antarctica-conservation-group-fails-to-reach-deal/ — with people who were actually at the meeting. Singling out specific countries looks like finger pointing to me. CCAMLR will hold a special meeting next summer to address MPAs around Antarctica and its consensus-based approach may seem cumbersome, but in the end, it offers the best hope for creating a lasting, strong, long-lasting agreement.

  • Alien

    Humans should stop reproducing so much. You are dangerously approaching the carrying capacity of Mother Earth. It is imperative to stop before it is too late.

    I agree with the opinion that every nation should require its citizens to have one child maximum. It may be bad for the economy in the future. However, if the environment is inhabitable, there would be no such thing as an economy.

  • nora escandelor

    what can we expect from greedy chinese?they want it all.The one child policy of china is too late.They are all over the world,and their country have to feed them,so their fishermen have to go get the natural resources of neighboring countries,in the process they destroy marines.,kill sea turtles and sold them as soveiners in their country.Ask the phils.coast guards if this is true.

  • Miranda

    Its a shame. Why can’t we all agree to try to conserve the beauty of the marine life.

About the Blog

Researchers, conservationists, and others share stories, insights and ideas about Our Changing Planet, Wildlife & Wild Spaces, and The Human Journey. More than 50,000 comments have been added to 10,000 posts. Explore the list alongside to dive deeper into some of the most popular categories of the National Geographic Society’s conversation platform Voices.

Opinions are those of the blogger and/or the blogger’s organization, and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Posters of blogs and comments are required to observe National Geographic’s community rules and other terms of service.

Voices director: David Braun (dbraun@ngs.org)

Social Media