2020 marks the bicentenary of the discovery of Antarctica. I can think of no better way to celebrate this occasion than by putting in place a system of MPAs in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. #Antartica2020 therefore represents a future for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean that keeps the icy continent a place of environmental protection, peace and science.
By Claire Christian
Following its discovery in 1820 by Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, Antarctica became a focus for international exploration due to the abundance and variety of marine life in its icy waters. Populations of many of these species, including whales and seals, were significantly depleted – and in some cases brought to the brink of extinction. As whaling and sealing declined, fishing increased.
In response to the growing commercial pressures and impacts, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) was created in 1982. In 1991, following a stunning display of political commitment and international diplomacy, Antarctica was declared a natural reserve, dedicated to peace and science.
Instead of agreeing a proposed international convention for mining Antarctica, which was in the process of being negotiated, the French and Australian Prime Ministers Michel Rocard and Bob Hawke laid down a far more visionary alternative and secured the Protocol of Environmental Protection of the Antarctic Treaty, known as the Madrid Protocol. The international agreement confirmed the the need to protect Antarctica.
Nearly 20 years later, in 2009, the members of CCAMLR committed to putting in place a system of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean by 2012. Finally, last year, the first MPA in that system was created in the Ross Sea. It comes into effect on December 1st 2017. The agreement was greeted with worldwide acclaim, and breathed new life into a global effort to protect the high seas.
Diplomacy brought together the nations that created CCAMLR and agreed its conservation task. It was strong political will and diplomatic investment that brought about the Madrid Protocol which gave Antarctica its strong environmental protections; and it was the bold political commitment from the USA and New Zealand that ensured the creation of the Ross Sea marine protected area in Antarctic waters.
Our #Antarctica2020 vision requires that same level of political commitment in order to realise the network of protected areas. The Ross Sea MPA is an excellent start. Within the next three years meaningful MPAs in East Antarctic, the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula must also have been put in place.
A European Union proposal for the Weddell Sea has been under consideration since 2016, and a proposal for 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, France and the EU.
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 colourful creatures.
We are only beginning to learn about these fascinating ecosystems and to develop a more complete understanding of East Antarctica’s ecosystems. Designating East Antarctica and the other proposed MPAs will enable scientists to continue studying the region and provide a vital tool for understanding the effects of climate change and improving ocean resilience.
The principle of a network of MPAs has already been agreed by all the CCAMLR members. All that is needed now is the political will to make it happen. ASOC’s goal is to ensure that it does.
There is no better way to celebrate the 200th anniversary of this unique place on our planet than by securing its protection for science and discovery in the centuries ahead.
Claire Christian is the executive director of the Antarctic & Southern Ocean Coalition
ASOC is the only non-governmental organization working full time to preserve the Antarctic continent and its surrounding Southern Ocean. A coalition of over 30 NGOs interested in Antarctic environmental protection, ASOC represents the environmental community at Antarctic governance meetings and works to promote important Antarctic conservation goals.