Last week in an obscure stone building in Hobart Tasmania, representatives from 24 nations plus the European Union, sat in stiff dark suits around a large table, making decisions that will determine the fate of one of our great global commons, the Southern Ocean.
They discussed proposals for expansive marine protected areas, including in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, deemed by many to be one of the healthiest and richest marine ecosystems on Earth. The Ross Sea is the most productive stretch of Antarctic waters and supports an incredible array of fishes, invertebrates, seals, whales and seabirds – including more than one-quarter of the world’s Emperor Penguins, and more than one-third of all Adélie Penguins.Adélie Penguins hunting in the Ross Sea (photo by John B. Weller)
Since my first trip to the Antarctic a decade ago, I’ve felt a visceral compulsion to protect this place. I worked toward this goal first through science, studying the life history of Antarctic toothfish. I then turned to media, working alongside my husband to publish articles, websites, a book, and even helping to produce a feature documentary on the Ross Sea.
Now, I have spent the last four years pursuing my PhD at Stanford University, trying to understand the policies, and policy-making, that govern the waters around Antarctica. As I sat in the meeting, watching negotiations for a Ross Sea marine protected area stall for the fourth year in a row, I thought of my daughter, Adelie. Will I be able to tell her stories of waters at the bottom of the world that still teem with fish, birds, and mammals? Or will the whole of the Southern Ocean follow the tragic course of my own native New England waters?
Ironically, it was the collapse of New England cod – and of so many other fish species across the world’s oceans – that forced fishers to travel such great distances, risking life and limb in ice-choked waters, to access some of our last abundant ocean resources. Fishers first came for seals, then whales, and more recently fish and krill. And despite the overharvesting of seals, whales and some fish, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that almost 40% of Antarctic fisheries are underdeveloped. This means that we still have a lot of fish and krill in the Antarctic, especially compared to the rest of our global oceans, where almost 90% of our fisheries are fully or over exploited.
The nations that manage these Antarctic waters are bound by the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR – the international Treaty that governs the Southern Ocean. This Treaty allows for fishing, but under strict precautionary measures, including a mandate to conserve the greater Antarctic ecosystem. Thus, the nations that collectively manage these waters face the enormous challenge of regulating the use of economically valuable resources while protecting the integrity of the Antarctic marine ecosystem, all under conditions of rapid environmental change.
This is where marine protected areas come into play. Marine protected areas (MPAs) limit or prohibit human activities to ensure the long-term health and sustainable use of our oceans. MPAs can lead to more and larger fish, thus benefitting fishers, while also conserving marine biodiversity, but to do so they need to have no-fishing zones. They also must be big enough to protect the ranges of the animals that live there.
If designed well, they can even help marine life build resilience to climate change. The proposed Ross Sea MPA has been designed with many of these factors in mind. It contains a significantly large no-fishing zone, which includes areas important to the many fish, mammals, and birds that live there, including Adélie penguins.
The first time I observed CCAMLR negotiations for Antarctic MPAs, I was incredibly frustrated by the pace. Nations had set a mandate to adopt Southern Ocean MPAs by 2012, yet I watched 2012 come and go, then two more meetings in 2013, another in 2014 and now last week’s meeting in 2015. I’ve seen the Ross Sea MPA come to the decision-making table five times now and not get adopted.
But something happened last week that gave me hope that a Ross Sea MPA is actually on the horizon. CCAMLR operates by consensus, meaning that all member nations must reach agreement before any decision can move forward. In the past few years, Russia and China had been the most vocal opponents to Southern Ocean MPAs. But last week, China finally endorsed the Ross Sea MPA. They negotiated slightly different boundaries and the addition of an area dedicated to krill research fishing, but the core of the proposal – a huge no-fishing zone on the Ross Sea shelf and slope – remains.
The fact is, international law, especially law based on consensus, moves at a snail’s pace. But it is moving. Adopting the world’s largest MPA in international waters is no small feat and doing it right takes time. Even adopting and implementing MPAs in national waters can take years.
Returning home to my daughter Adelie, I remain hopeful she will someday be able to witness a great southern sea teeming with life, including the penguins for which she was named. But this vision requires that every CCAMLR nation find the political will to adopt MPAs in time to safeguard these Antarctic marine ecosystems. When they do (and I believe they will), I can then also tell my daughter that I was there to witness one of our greatest international environmental triumphs, when we came together to protect one of our last great global commons.