In 2009, 24 countries and the European Union (EU) agreed to a bold plan to create a circumpolar network of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica by 2012. As Members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), they took the first step towards fulfilling that commitment by designating the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area (MPA) in 2016, which will come into force in December 2017. After years of stalled negotiations, this accomplishment was greeted with worldwide acclaim, and breathed new life into a global effort to protect the high seas.
The designation of the world’s largest MPA was a moment of true international cooperation and consensus. CCAMLR must now maintain this momentum to fulfill their commitment to a circumpolar network. There are three more proposals on the table. An EU proposal for an MPA in the Weddell Sea has been under consideration since 2016, and a proposal for an MPA in the Western Antarctic Peninsula, led by Argentina and Chile, is expected later this year. The final proposal, the East Antarctic Representative System of MPAs (EARSMPA), was proposed to CCAMLR in 2011 by Australia and the EU.
The current EARSMPA proposal covers three areas – MacRobertson, Drygalski and D’Urville-Mertz – each of which is an important foraging area for Antarctica’s populations of mammals and birds, including emperor and Adélie penguins. The areas would protect representative portions of the biodiversity found on the Antarctic seafloor and species targeted by fisheries such as krill and finfish. Although penguins, seals, and whales are the iconic species of the Southern Ocean, more than 90 percent of the species found there are invertebrates, many of which make the ocean floor their home.
Underwater footage recently taken in the East Antarctic by the Australian Antarctic Division shows thriving communities of sea stars, sponges, and other colorful creatures.
We are only beginning to learn about these fascinating ecosystems and to develop a more complete understanding of East Antarctica’s ecosystems. Designating the proposed MPAs will enable scientists to continue to study the region. MPAs are also a vital tool for understanding the effects of climate change and can improve ocean resilience.
As proponents prepare a new proposal for CCAMLR for 2017, they should make no additional concessions. In fact, we encourage France, the European Union and Australia to take this opportunity to clarify key conservation elements in the new proposal, such as how the MPA will ensure sufficient inclusion of no-take areas.
The designation of the Ross Sea MPA (RSMPA) in October 2016 has some lessons for East Antarctica. Ross Sea proponents New Zealand and the United States, including former Secretary of State John Kerry, made designation of the MPA a top diplomatic priority. The EARSMPA’s proponents must now undertake similar efforts to secure the support of all CCAMLR Members.
Australia and France have a proud history of winning agreement for the conservation of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. In 1991, Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Michel Rocard negotiated the Protocol of Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty. The Protocol overturned an Antarctic mining convention that was on the verge of ratification. This was one of the most significant conservation achievements of the 20th century. More recently, France played a pivotal role in securing the Paris Agreement on climate change, winning the support of 194 disparate countries. With strong leadership, securing the support of 23 CCAMLR Members for a Southern Ocean MPA should be readily achievable.
Michel Rocard continued to be a passionate champion for Antarctic environmental protection, and in his final years urged all parties to expedite the adoption of Antarctic MPAs. To coincide with the first anniversary of his death, on 2 July, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition will host a conference in cooperation with the Oceanographic Institute/Albert I Prince of Monaco Foundation, the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The conference will take place in Paris on 29 June 2017, and will explore how France and the EU can lead on Southern Ocean protection and the designation of the East Antarctic MPA in the lead up to CCAMLR this October.
Currently, MPAs comprise only a small part of the global ocean, and an even smaller part of high seas areas, which include the Southern Ocean. France, Australia and the EU have an opportunity to help secure this legacy, in the spirit of international cooperation, and come together again to set aside sensitive marine ecosystems for protection.
Authored by Claire Christian, Acting Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition
First published in the International Institute for Sustainable Development Knowledge Hub