For over 50 years, international treaties have ensured that Antarctica (map) remained a place for peaceful activities and scientific study for all. That ethos of cooperation and conservation has largely carried over to today, with recent proposals for two marine protected areas (MPAs) in the ocean surrounding Antarctica.
If designated, the two sanctuaries would become the largest marine reserves on the planet. But the proposals must first be approved by a group of 24 nations and the European Union at a meeting this July 11 to 16 in Bremerhaven, Germany (map).
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—established by international consensus in 1982 to safeguard Antarctic marine life—called the special July meeting to discuss the revised proposals. But there are concerns that the sanctuaries could be stripped of any meaning on the way to being approved.
If adopted, the MPAs would cover an area about the size of India. One proposal, submitted by the United States and New Zealand, would cover a 600,000-square-mile (1.6 million-square-kilometer) patchwork of areas in and around the Ross Sea. (Related: "John Kerry Urges Support for Ross Sea Antarctic Ocean Reserve.")
And the East Antarctica proposal, submitted by Australia, France, and the European Union, would also cover about 600,000 square miles (1.6 million square kilometers) in East Antarctica.
"If I had my way, the entire Southern Ocean would be kept as a public trust, just as the land has," said Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and explorer-in-residence at National Geographic.
The Antarctic ecosystem helps govern the way the world works, explained Earle, former chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The plants, the animals, and the chemical cycles—including carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous cycles—are interconnected, she said. They affect the life-support systems that keep our planet habitable.
Although the two proposed reserves are a patchwork of areas, their stated aims are to protect the organisms and habitats in some of the most untouched areas on Earth.
"There are huge penguin populations [in the East Antarctic]," said Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Southern Ocean Sanctuaries campaign.
There are about 750,000 pairs of Adélie penguins and more than 50,000 pairs of emperor penguins, she added. There are also many kinds of whale and seal species in the East Antarctic, including the Ross seal, which is found nowhere else.
Only certain areas of the Ross Sea would be part of a no-take MPA. Other regions of this biologically rich area would be open to activities like fishing. The proposed MPAs focus on fishing since countries party to the Antarctic Treaty enacted a ban on the exploitation of mineral resources in Antarctica in 1991.
"It's a meaningless MPA," said David Ainley, a marine ecologist with H.T. Harvey & Associates in California. The areas that would be protected under the Ross Sea proposal historically contributed a small portion of the overall toothfish catch from that region, he added. Heavily fished areas would still be open to the fishing industry.
The problem with the toothfish fishery, and with a lot of fisheries around the world, is that it's managed largely on the basis of theory, said Robert Hofman, a retired marine ecologist who served as the special adviser to the U.S. State Department during the negotiations that set up CCAMLR.
"The goal is to reduce the [toothfish] spawning biomass to 50 percent of its pre-exploitation biomass over 35 years," said Hofman. But that fishery objective is based on two assumptions, he explained.
The first is that toothfish predators and prey would not be affected by the removal of so many of these valuable fish. And the second assumption is based on computer model estimates of the pre-fishery size of the toothfish population. "[But] there are no data indicating what the pre-fisheries spawning biomass was," Hofman said.
"We don't grind up songbirds for fertilizer. We don't any longer take whales for oil," said Earle. Wildlife has other values than as food, and that understanding must extend to krill and fish, she said. "They're part of the fabric of life."
A previous version of the Ross Sea MPA, submitted by the United States, made efforts to address some of those issues, Hofman said. But the revised joint proposal submitted by the U.S. and New Zealand does not.
One upside to the current Ross Sea proposal is that it would protect toothfish spawning grounds, which is a good idea, said Ainley, who has worked extensively in the area.
But CCAMLR just wasn't prepared to deal with the intense interest in the toothfish fishery, he said. "At best they're trying to play catch-up, but mostly, they're just trying to sustain fishing rather than sustainable fisheries."
"Of course we would prefer that the entire [Ross Sea] be protected," said the Pew Charitable Trusts' Kavanagh. But if both these MPAs are designated, they will be the largest marine reserves in history, she said. "We would prefer something get done than nothing."
Another concern that could have far-reaching consequences is the concept of expiration dates for both the proposed MPAs, said Martha McConnell, manager of the polar program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The Ross Sea reserve would have to be renewed in 2064, and the East Antarctic reserve would have until 2043.
"IUCN's position [is that] an MPA with a time limit is not an MPA," McConnell said. "IUCN is very supportive of these high-seas MPAs—they're critical for our polar regions. But the notion to set expiration dates really seems to be at odds with the objectives of CCAMLR."
The time limits, or "sunset clauses," were introduced by Norway at the first CCAMLR meeting to consider the MPA proposals last October, the Pew Trusts' Kavanagh said. Other countries such as Russia and Japan have since lobbied in support of the time limits.
But no other MPA within a country's exclusive economic zone—an area that extends 200 miles (322 kilometers) out to sea from a nation's shoreline—has a time limit, explained Kavanagh.
"The whole point of an MPA is that it goes on indefinitely," she said.
"If [CCAMLR goes] forward with a time limit, we fear it will set a precedent for other MPAs that come up around the world, and we want to avoid that going forward," IUCN's McConnell said.
"The proposing countries have tried to rewrite the language for a review clause, rather than a sunset clause," said Kavanagh. But it's unknown whether the proposing countries would be willing to cut a deal on this point in order to get the MPAs established.
"Countries were visionary 50 years ago coming up with the Antarctic treaty," said McConnell. But letting the time limits go through wouldn't be in the spirit of that international agreement.
"We're the only creature with the capacity to disrupt the nature of nature on a planetary scale," said Earle. "It took us 10,000 years to have the impact we have had on the land, but it's only taken us a few decades to have a comparable impact on the ocean."
We must act now to protect this valuable ecosystem, she said. "We don't have another 50 years."
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