Once again, delegates from 24 countries and the EU, plus observers from environmental groups, have descended upon Tasmania to discuss the protection of the Antarctic marine environment, specifically marine protected areas (MPAs). When I last wrote about marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Antarctic, the situation was pretty grim. Nevertheless, the countries proposing the MPAs, and the global environmental community, haven’t given up hope that the Commission on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) will honor its promise this week and designate large-scale MPAs in East Antarctica and the Ross Sea.
This week’s activities were kicked off by a public rally outside CCAMLR headquarters. CCAMLR is not an organization used to receiving a lot of public interest in its activities, but the rally was a peaceful, positive event. More than 100 people – a good crowd for tiny Tasmania – gathered to encourage CCAMLR Member countries to make MPAs a reality at this meeting. Participants held binoculars and blue balloons emblazoned with eyes to remind meeting delegates that the world was watching and awaiting a significant outcome for marine protection. Wildlife photographer John Weller, one of the event speakers, noted that “Creating Antarctic reserves would be the first truly multilateral effort to create international marine reserves on a large scale.” It was a good reminder for the countries attending the meeting that they have a responsibility to conserve Antarctic ecosystems on behalf of the entire world.
Since July, MPA proponent countries have been working steadily to make changes that would give their proposals a better chance of success. The Ross Sea proposal’s size was cut by about 40%, and the East Antarctica proposal’s rules for approving activities were relaxed. None of the changes were exactly happy news to the environmental community, which had supported the previous proposals. Nevertheless, knowing that some concessions would be necessary to achieve the required consensus from all CCAMLR countries, environmental groups who have been following the MPA process were supportive of adopting the revised MPAs this year.
So how are countries feeling this week? The evidence from is mixed. Greg Hunt, the Australian environment minister, seemed cautiously optimistic at a recent press conference. Dmitry Kremenyuk, who leads the Russian CCAMLR delegation, told The New York Times that he thought that the revised proposals could succeed, while downplaying the role that Russia had played in blocking the proposals over the summer. Though not a message of overwhelming support and enthusiasm, it was at least a sign that Russia was keeping an open mind.
Thus we head into negotiations with a sense that real progress on MPAs is a possibility. The main question is what kind of MPAs will we get – ones with meaningful protection or ones that only look good on paper? The changes to the proposals may have satisfied some countries but not others. And the changes didn’t address one particularly sensitive issue – that of the duration of the MPAs. MPAs are typically created to last indefinitely, but several CCAMLR countries have expressed concern about this and suggested that CCAMLR’s MPAs should automatically expire. This would create an unprecedented situation – can you imagine if the Grand Canyon automatically lost its national park status after a couple of decades unless all fifty states agreed to keep it?
Including an end date, and making any other concessions to the current proposals, could mean that we are left with short-term MPAs that only encompass areas chosen not on the basis of their ecological values, but rather on the basis of whether anyone wants to fish there. The areas are already smaller than when they were initially put forward, though they still would be very valuable contributions to Antarctic ecosystem preservation. Weak MPAs would hardly be a good outcome for ocean conservation, or for CCAMLR, whose founding treaty pledges protection for those ecosystems. Nevertheless, CCAMLR countries can still decide that long-term protection and preservation of some of the world’s most unusual and intact ecosystems is worth sacrificing some short-term gain. Not to mention setting an incredible precedent for high-seas protection. For the sake of the oceans, let’s hope CCAMLR gets it right this time.