This week, my hopes that we could protect the spectacular waters around Antarctica went down in flames. Through a steady stream of dull procedural objections, absurdist claims, and disingenuous overtures, a small group of fishing nations led by Russia and the Ukraine once again blocked proposals to protect important habitats for penguins, seals, whales, fish and other ocean life.
For those of us who care about the oceans, the failure of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to adopt either of the marine protected area proposals is not only terrible news for the ecosystems of the Ross Sea and East Antarctica, it is an alarming signal that new thinking is needed in order to save our oceans around the world. CCAMLR is, at least in theory, supposed to be different from the alphabet soup of regional fishery management organizations (RFMOs) that have always prioritized fishing interests over conservation. With a founding goal of conserving Antarctic marine life, the ecosystem-based approach that we’d all like to see adopted elsewhere has been part of CCAMLR’s DNA since the beginning.
There are still some members of CCAMLR that try to uphold the organization’s conservation mandate, but others have abandoned it to chase “white gold” – toothfish, often sold as Chilean sea bass. Today, it would be hard to argue that CCAMLR has not become just another RFMO. Decisions about stewardship of our oceans cannot be left to fishing industry lobbyists and their government proxies. From the Bering Sea to the Ross Sea, from New England to the Mediterranean, the legacy of that approach is loss of living coral and sponge habitat, truncated food webs, and depleted populations. In many cases, entire fishing communities have disappeared along with the fish.
International commitments to establish marine protected areas have proven to be largely meaningless. Deadlines and targets have come and gone, and where protected areas have been established they often come at the price of compromises which render them ineffectual. In the meantime, the impacts of irresponsible fisheries management continue to spread to the farthest reaches of the globe, and into deeper and deeper waters.
The best available science is not enough. Convincing arguments and constructive engagement in policy reform efforts are not enough. Widespread support for protecting our oceans is not enough. Even at CCAMLR, all of this has not been enough.
We need action, in the streets and on the water. Today it is clearer than ever that if we hope to save our oceans, we must get out there and defend them.
Oceans Campaign Director