Tragedy on the Antarctic High Seas

Last week history was almost made. Delegates from two-dozen nations gathered to discuss the fate of the Southern Ocean. Several countries were proposing what would have become the world’s largest marine reserves to protect biodiversity at the bottom of the world. Years of science – in some cases spanning more than 150 years – were built into the proposals, particularly in the Ross Sea, a region deemed by many scientists to be the most pristine marine ecosystem left on Earth.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which oversees 10 percent of the global oceans, agreed to join the international movement to contribute to a global network of marine protected areas (MPAs) by 2012. Yet the Commission, lauded as a leader in international high seas management, and founded on values of conservation and science as an ocean counterpart to the Antarctic Treaty, failed to reach consensus. Despite days and nights of intense discussions about the science-based proposals, increasing pressure from international conservation organizations, and a media storm attracting public interest across the globe, the waters around Antarctica did not receive protection.

The Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo by John B. Weller)

As I sat in the meeting last week, I kept revisiting my time in the Ross Sea earlier this year, and its incredible abundance of penguins and seals, extraordinary fishes, stunning ice formations, and waters so productive that the Ross Sea phytoplankton bloom can be see from space. Collectively, the scientists on our ice-breaker had almost 600 months of time at sea, many of them over the course of 30, 40, and even 50 years. When I surveyed our scientists on board about why they keep coming back, their answers were for the most part strikingly similar: the ability to study in a place largely undamaged by humans.

The scientists stressed the importance of having undamaged areas for understanding large-scale oceanographic and ecosystem processes, especially in relation to climate change. Many also stressed the incredible value of the Antarctic as a space for international collaboration and the sheer beauty of the place. Hundreds of scientists, including some of those on board, have already petitioned for protection of the Ross Sea due to its tremendous value as a living laboratory.

Science and support crew working on the Nathaniel B. Palmer in the Ross Sea, Antarctica during February and March 2013.
Science and support crew working on the Nathaniel B. Palmer in the Ross Sea, Antarctica during February and March 2013.

I came to CCAMLR as a doctoral student with the goal of studying what I anticipated would be a successful MPA process. I understood the Antarctic Treaty System as a remarkable example (perhaps the only example) of defying the Tragedy of the Commons on a large scale. When the Treaty was signed during the height of the Cold War in 1959, it set aside the entire continent for the sake of peace and science.

Later, CCAMLR became the arm of the Treaty that managed the Southern Ocean resources. While fishing was permitted, it was tightly managed and CCAMLR became a leader in employing science-based management.

Weddell Seal in the Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo by John B. Weller).
Weddell Seal in the Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo by John B. Weller).

During the last ten years as CCAMLR continually pledged its commitment to set up a network of Southern Ocean MPAs, the international oceans community has watched with great interest. As the best-managed ocean commons, many have remarked that if CCAMLR can’t succeed, then we don’t stand a chance at developing high-seas marine reserves.

But do CCAMLR members have the political will to make it happen? Or will we keep on squabbling over Southern Ocean fisheries, which even in the Ross Sea, only amount to less than 1/10th of one percent of global landings?

Emperor Penguin in the Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo by John B. Weller).
Emperor Penguin gazing at the Russian icebreaker, the Kapitan Khlebnikov, in the Ross Sea, Antarctica (photo by John B. Weller).

As a global commons, the Antarctic belongs to all of us. Decision-makers meet again this October in Hobart, Australia, to continue deliberations. As human well-being is directly tied to the ocean, I believe that we all have a personal stake in these issues. This link will take you to a site put together by the Antarctic Ocean Alliance where you can email decision makers in all of CCAMLR’s countries. I encourage you to raise your voice in support of CCAMLR’s efforts for marine protection.




Meet the Author
Cassandra Brooks is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder studying international ocean policy, particularly focusing on marine protection in the Antarctic.