Changing Planet

John Kerry Urges Support for Ross Sea Antarctic Ocean Reserve

“When it comes to the Ross Sea and Antarctica we’re not going to wait for a crisis to take action,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told a crowd at National Geographic headquarters yesterday evening.

Kerry was joined at the podium by Terry Adamson, EVP of National Geographic; Karen Sack of The Pew Charitable Trusts, sponsor of the reception; Mike Moore, New Zealand’s Ambassador to the United States and a former prime minister; and Bob Carr, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs and a senator of that nation. The three countries are co-sponsoring an international plan to designate Antarctica’s Ross Sea as a marine protected area (MPA).

John Kerry talks about the need to protect the Ross Sea. Photo: Katye Martens, The Pew Charitable Trusts

Moore spoke of New Zealand’s connection to Antarctica as a “gateway to the ice,” noting his country’s historic role as a staging area for expeditions and research scientists, particularly to the Ross Sea.

In recent months, New Zealand fishermen had protested designation of the Ross Sea as a sanctuary, fearing that they would lose access to the toothfish (Chilean sea bass) there. But  a compromise was reached.

As Moore said, “The joint proposal for the marine protected area would make it the largest in the world, roughly three and a half times the size of Texas and nine times the size of New Zealand.”

Moore added that the MPA will include a managed fishery as well as a no-take zone that is four times the size of California and six times the size of New Zealand.

“We are proud this is based on quality science,” said Moore. “To misquote the vice president of the United States, ‘This is a big (air quotes) deal.'”

“We need it,” Australia’s Carr said about the proposed marine protected area.

The Ross Sea as “Living Laboratory”

Kerry called the Ross Sea a “living laboratory” that needs protection, adding “we disrespect at our peril.”

He pointed to the fact that scientists have recently discovered proteins in toothfish there that ferry ice crystals out of their bodies. “Imagine ice cream that stays frozen without ice crystals,” he said, as one example of an application that could be gleaned from such a natural innovation.

Kerry also pointed to recent efforts to treat hypoxic babies that were partially based on knowledge gleaned from studying hypoxia (lack of oxygen) in water bodies.

“Antarctica is a collection of superlatives: the highest, coldest, windiest, driest, remotest, most pristine place on Earth,” said Kerry. “Explorers tried to cross it without any guarantees of safe return.” He stressed that Antarctica should remain “devoted to peace and learning.”

Kerry ended his remarks by making a plea for environmental protection, reminding the audience that 20 million people had taken to the streets on Earth Day in 1970 to make that case. He had started his talk recounting his childhood on Cape Cod, when mussels were plentiful and good eating. “Now it is very hard to find any mussels there,” he said. Kerry pointed to a litany of problems facing our ocean, from acidification to global warming, overfishing, and pollution.

“We call this beautiful planet Earth, but it could well have been called Ocean,” said Kerry.

Challenges Ahead

Karen Sack had also set the stage for discussion on the Ross Sea. “Imagine icy blue water, teaming with life but barely understood,” she said. “The Ross Sea is a great wilderness, frigid yet remarkable.”

She added that hundreds of species make their homes there, including 38% of all Adelie penguins and 26% of Emperor penguins. “We don’t know a lot about [the Ross Sea], but we know it’s rich in biodiversity,” said Sack.

“This summer we have an opportunity to protect key areas, but we only have a few months left to secure suport for parks linking the great Southern Ocean,” said Sack.

In July 15-17, 24 countries and the European Union will meet in Bremerhaven, Germany, to vote on the proposed marine protected areas in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica. The group, called the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) since 1982, sets policy for the region by consensus.

Insiders say there is still work to be done to get other countries on board.

Following the remarks, guests viewed the documentary The Last Ocean, which showcases the biodiversity of the Ross Sea.

(View Pew’s post on the event.)

Follow Cassandra Brooks’ dispatches from the Ross Sea in Ocean Views.


Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science,,,, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVACGreen LightingBuild Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.

  • Scijapophis

    The world NEEDS more John Kerry’s.

  • Dwight E. Howell

    Record sea ice for well over a year and this buffoon is going to save it from warming, sure thing.

  • Peter Young

    A couple of notes regarding the above story. The film The Last Ocean – does a lot more than show case the biodiverstiy of the Ross Sea – it lifts the lid on commercial fishing in the Ross Sea, a fishery that intends to reduce the biomass of the Ross Sea’s adult Antarctic Toothfish by 50%. This will ultimately destroy the natural balance of Earh’s most intact and untouched marine eocosystem.

    The proposal that John Kerry and Mike Moore announced was agreed on late last year. It may protect a large area – but omitts the most biologically rich area in the Ross Sea (the continental slope) which happens to be the main fishing ground. Not wanting to burst the balloon on this MPA – but hte reality is tha it is a first step in what will be a long journey. The Last Ocean Charitable Trust in NZ has the backing of 30 plus leading Ross Sea scientists and calls for protection of the entire Ross Sea to preserve the intact qualities of the marine ecosystem.

    Peter Young
    The Last OCean

  • vaila cochrane

    How are these areas to be policed; so big. At least the proposed conservancy areas round Britain are tiny and unlikely to contain oil.

  • David Ainley

    I attended the very nice event about the Ross Sea at National Geographic, and while it’s wonderful that interest has been peaked, sad to say a whole lot of mis-information is now being dispensed, some of it intentionally by certain parties, about the Ross Sea and MPA proposals for its protection.

    The Ross Sea, as you will learn from merely googling the name on the web, is just 642,000km2 or 0.6M km2; it encompases the waters that cover the Ross Sea continental shelf and slope, between Victoria Land and Marie Byrd Land. Owing to the climate effects on the ocean, those waters are unique in their characteristics, known to oceanographers as Ross Sea Surface Water. Not included is the huge area to the north, ranging in various recent reports from 1.9 to 4.9M km2, that various parties have been wanting the public to believe are the Ross Sea. Those waters have no oceanographic connection. Despite the elegant words that Karen Sack gave preceeding the talks of various dignitaries at the event, the Ross Sea is not little known. In fact it is the best known stretch of ocean in the Antarctic, having been investigated at huge cost and effort for the past 200+ years, beginning with the ‘heroic’ expeditions by the British beginning with James Clark Ross in the 1830s and continuing with extensive research today.

    It is the Ross Sea that Peter Young’s film and John Weller’s photos celebrate as the “Last Ocean,” and not those northern waters that MPA proponents now call the Ross Sea or Ross Sea region. Most of those northern waters, for instance, have never seen a Weddell seal, exquisitely photographed by John Weller and spoken of in awe by BBC photographer Doug Allan in the “Last Ocean” film; neither have most of the waters seen the ghostly icebergs depicted in the film, and so on. And, no, 500 scientists did not petition to protect those northern waters.

    The Ross Sea story and images, however, are being co-opted. Those northern waters could not hold a candle to the richness of the Ross Sea, the richest stretch of the entire Southern Ocean (28% of Southern Ocean primary productivity), and for that reason the fishing industry has ‘deeded,’ so to speak, those northern waters over to the MPA proponents. Despite what various dignitaries claim, bigger, i.e. 3.5X the size of Texas or 9X the size of NZ, is not better and in fact are meaningless comparisons intended to divert attention from what is NOT being protected.

    The various government entities have diluted the Ross Sea story in deference to the desires of their fishing industry. The joint NZ-USA MPA proposal is not a ‘compromise’, rather it is a capitulation on the part of the USA in order for some area to be protected, as long as fishing continues just as it has to date. That was a pragmatic decision. After all the work and energy expended thus far to try to come up with an MPA proposal of any kind, the parties don’t want to come away with nothing regardless of what is or is not protected.

    Fishing has not been affected at all in the current proposal, and it is the removal of Antarctic toothfish (aka Chilean sea bass), that is already affecting, in just 10 years of intensive fishing, what was once the last stretch of ocean on Earth in which we could still see how ocean ecosystems elsewhere, including those in John Kerry’s back yard, once worked. The fishing industry now says it fishes in just 3% of the Ross Sea, as if to say its actvities are insignificant, which is more of the misinformation being generated since the National Geographic showing of the film. The fishing industry and its agencies claim it has reduced the toothfish spawning population by 20% and still has 30% more to go before reaching it’s management goals (their supposed to result in more small fish to be caught, a myth). Already, however, those Weddell seals and fish-eating killer whales depicted in the film are having to work much harder to find food. It’s the same story repeated over and over and over.

    The real Ross Sea is much less than 1% of the world ocean, just 2.3% of the Southern Ocean. Why must that tiny ‘natural laboratory,’ a treasure as Sylvia Earle would say, be trashed for short-term financial gain just like waters elsewhere, including off New England where John Kerry (and I) grew up? That’s the question that future generations will be asking.
    David Ainley

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