Russia Prevents Designation of Large Marine Protected Areas in the Antarctic

An Adelie penguin in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. Photo by John B. Weller.

Yesterday, plans to create some of the world’s largest marine protected areas (MPAs) in Antarctica came to a screeching halt after Russia blocked progress. Although 24 nations and the EU had come to a special meeting in Germany specifically to consider proposals for MPAs in the Ross Sea and East Antarctica because they failed to make progress at their annual meeting in 2012, Russia made it clear that they did not intend to negotiate in good faith.

Even as other nations who had delayed progress on MPAs in the past showed their willingness to make a deal, Russia raised additional issues on legality and definition of terms that prevented consensus (required for all marine management decisions in Antarctica) from being reached.

At the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, nations around the world pledged to establish representative networks of marine protected areas (MPAs) in their territorial waters. Very little progress has been made since – only one percent of the oceans is protected. In 2009, the member countries of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) took up this call and committed to establish a network of MPAs in the waters they manage, the Southern Ocean.

While it may not sound like a revolutionary step to support something many CCAMLR members had already supported at the WSSD, their pledge, if fulfilled, would be a major victory for high seas (i.e., areas outside individual national jurisdiction) conservation. WWF even gave CCAMLR a “Gift to the Earth” award in 2010 in recognition of this incredibly progressive decision, which had already resulted in the designation of the world’s first high seas MPA in the South Orkney Islands.

But promises aren’t always kept, and when it came time to make actual decisions some CCAMLR member countries refused to adopt the MPAs that were put on the table despite extensive discussions and the agreement of CCAMLR’s scientists that the proposals were based on the best available science for those areas. Hence the unusual step of holding the meeting in Germany to try to get something done and convince the remaining holdouts.

In many ways, the meeting was an extraordinary opportunity for global ocean conservation. After all, by investing so much time and effort in this issue, the countries of CCAMLR who support MPAs are sending a strong signal to the rest of the world that ocean protection is important. If the meeting had had a more positive result, it would have made history by establishing huge protected areas in the high seas. CCAMLR has a reputation for leadership on conservation and fisheries management, particularly when compared to organizations like the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT). It was clear that many of these countries were frustrated that after so much time and effort, they have been unable to achieve what they set out to do.

Russia’s official objections centered on CCAMLR’s legal authority to designate MPAs, as well as a desire for CCAMLR to develop a definition for MPAs. Russia had previously never raised these questions despite years of discussions about MPAs, and did not object to the decision for CCAMLR to begin work on a network of MPAs or the establishment of the South Orkneys MPA. MPA supporters at the meeting presented clear evidence that the CCAMLR treaty gives them the ability to designate MPAs, but Russia was not convinced.

Presumably, the real objections are to any measure that might interfere with fishing, regardless of whether any current fishing will be significantly limited by the MPA. The East Antarctica and Ross Sea MPA proposals, by the way, would not significantly reduce overall fishing in their regions. At the close of the meeting, there was no clear indication of whether these issues could be resolved in time for CCAMLR’s regular annual meeting in October of this year.

Ultimately, the real loser is the Southern Ocean and the millions of animals that call it home. If countries cannot look beyond short-term gain and see the value of leaving a legacy of permanent ocean protection for key Antarctic ecosystems, CCAMLR’s promise will have been an empty one. But there is still hope that CCAMLR nations can agree on these two MPAs in October. CCAMLR and Russia could be  shining examples of leadership for the rest of the world, proving that it is possible to take bold steps to preserve the 70% of our planet that is ocean. One percent of the oceans protected is not enough to safeguard the oceans for current and future generations.

With so much at stake, what happened in Germany is simply not acceptable.

Wildlife

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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.