Changing Planet

Cracks in the Future of the Antarctic

Last week governments met in the southern reaches of Hobart, Australia to make decisions on how to manage the vulnerable icy waters around Antarctica. They deliberated in the wake of the recent reports, which concluded with high confidence that climate change will cause dramatic environmental changes and loss of sea ice. As if to underscore the debates over managing for climate change and proposed marine protected areas designed to enhance the resilience of Southern Ocean ecosystems, a massive wedge of the Pine Island Glacier calved into the Southern Ocean. Antarctica seemed to be pleading for action and yet, the 25-member Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) failed to agree to act on climate change nor to adopt any protected areas.

Antarctica is exceptional. The coldest, windiest, iciest, driest, and most remote of continents is widely celebrated for its rich history of exploration, science and diplomacy and for its exceptional beauty.

It’s also exceptionally important. Since its discovery, scientists have since documented that the Antarctic is vital to Earth systems. And despite the extreme environment – life thrives in incredible abundance. The freezing Southern Ocean that surrounds the Antarctic continent teems with whales, seals, penguins, toothfish, and krill to name a few. This frozen seascape harbors some of the last remaining great wildernesses on the planet. However, fishing pressure, combined with cumulative impacts of climate change, potentially jeopardizes the future of marine life in the Southern Ocean.

Wave rolling in sea ice cave in Antarctica (credit: John B Weller)

The Antarctic, particularly the western Antarctic Peninsula, is one of the fastest warming places on Earth. A warmer Antarctica will lead to global repercussions of sea level rise, ocean circulation, and climate regulation. And locally, climate change is driving fluctuations in ice cover, shifts in population distribution and decreases in primary productivity. Potential declines in ice-dependent Antarctic krill, the foundation of the Southern Ocean food web, could lead to disruptions throughout the ecosystem.

CCAMLR’s charter is to conserve all biota and ecosystems in the Southern Ocean. Although fishing is allowed, it is not a right and does not trump responsibility for conservation. CCAMLR’s provisions on fishing are strict, precautionary, ecosystem-based and science-based. They also demand that management should take into account the effects of environmental change.

Across the 25 members, CCAMLR scientists have stressed for many years the urgent need to better understand how climate change will affect Antarctic species, both in the presence and absence of fishing. Last year, they proposed a climate change response work program that specifies research and monitoring requirements; identifies actions to address the implications of climate change on fisheries management; and, proposes to engage climate change experts to inform CCAMLR decision-making. A multi-nation research and monitoring plan in the Ross Sea was also on the table for a second time. Yet for two years in a row now CCAMLR could not agree to adopt these plans – ignoring the consensus scientific evidence and advice – largely due to political barriers.

In 2002, in line with global international agreements and targets, CCAMLR began working towards a network of representative MPAs in the Southern Ocean. In 2009, CCAMLR adopted the first international marine MPA. Then in 2016, CCAMLR adopted the world’s largest MPA in the Ross Sea, an area deemed to be one of the last remaining healthy marine ecosystems. With the adoption of the world’s first large-scale international MPA, there was hope that CCAMLR would soon follow through on its commitment towards the network. This year, three MPAs came under negotiation, including in the Weddell Sea – an icy wilderness which trapped Ernest Shackleton more than 100 years ago and, in part because it is protected by its extreme ice, a region which has never experienced commercial fishing. A proposal for a system of MPAs in the East Antarctic was also back on the table for the 7thyear. Finally, an MPA for protecting the rapidly changing Antarctic Peninsula – an area with increasing human activity, including fishing and tourism, that is perhaps most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change – was presented for the first time. All three of these proposals were blocked despite strong support.

Emperor Penguins in the East Antarctic (credit: John B Weller)

Extensive research supports that protected areas lead to greater biodiversity and biomass and, further, and perhaps most importantly in the case of the Southern Ocean, that protected areas can enhance species and ecosystems resilience to climate change impacts. The proposals that came to CCAMLR this year would enhance resilience of Southern Ocean ecosystems, and provide vitally important opportunities for research. However, CCAMLR makes decisions based on consensus, meaning that every Member must agree for any management measure to move forward. Securing fishing access, now and in the future, as well as global and regional geopolitics have increasingly challenged CCAMLR’s ability to progress on any conservation initiatives, including protected areas.

Climate change is happening now, far outpacing research and policy decisions. A global coalition of nations has started to respond, agreeing to cut carbon emissions with the signing of the Paris Agreement. Most nations have further committed to conserving biodiversity and implementing protected areas via the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As the management body which governs the Southern Ocean, CCAMLR has the responsibility to work in conjunction with the suite of international environmental agreements towards conserving and protecting the Antarctic marine ecosystems. More than that, CCAMLR must take the lead, adopting policies that are both responsive and proactive. Unfortunately, since the adoption of the Ross Sea MPA in 2016, CCAMLR has not made any significant progress towards either incorporating climate change into its management or establishing necessary protections in the Southern Ocean.

Chinstrap and Gentoo Penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula (credit: John B Weller)

Policy can take a long time, especially in consensus decision making, but importantly, States have acted quickly in the past to address the imminent threat of illegal fishing. CCAMLR itself was formed in quick response to fears about overfishing for Antarctic krill. The roots of CCAMLR lie in the Antarctic Treaty, a peace and science agreement crafted in only six months and signed at the height of the Cold War. CCAMLR nations must wake up to the fact that climate change is as imminent a threat to Southern Ocean resources as illegal fishing. They must take quick and decisive action. They must, once again, lead.

The Antarctic is historically a place of great diplomacy, science and conservation. It is rightly celebrated as such. The future of the Antarctic ecosystems depends on CCAMLR rising swiftly to this new challenge. If they do, Antarctica will continue to be a beacon of international diplomacy, scientific collaborations, peaceful cooperation, and thriving ecosystems.

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.

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