Antarctica Becomes Home to World’s Largest Marine Reserve

24 countries and the EU recently signed off on a landmark deal that will now see part of Antarctica’s Ross Sea become the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA).

Autor*in Anna Rees, 11.25.16

Just how large? The designated area covers around 1.55m sq km and is situated in the Southern Ocean, starting at the inlet that borders the Ross Ice Shelf on the icy continent.

The deal outlines that 72 per cent of the area is to become a strict ‘no take’ zone, meaning exactly that: the removal of marine life or minerals is strictly prohibited. The remaining zones will permit some fishing of krill and toothfish for research purposes. The move comes off the back of five years of drawn out negotiations about how to manage and preserve this marine ecosystem.

The proposal to protect this area was first introduced by New Zealand and the US, two members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a 25-member body responsible for governing Antarctic waters and marine life. The agreement was signed at the end of October during the commission’s annual meeting in Hobart, Australia.

During negotiations, the deal was consistently met with resistance from China and Russia, both of whom fish in the area. In 2015, China agreed to the proposal while Russia came on board in October this year. The compromise? The protection is valid for 35 years.

Preserving the ‘Last Ocean’

An estimated 16,000 species call the Ross Sea home, including penguins, fish, seals, whales, krill and more. Beyond providing habitat to so many animals, birds and fish, the waters here perform a key function: the Southern Ocean produces 75 per cent of life-sustaining nutrients that all oceans rely upon. Lack of human interference and pollution in the area (a 2011 study dubbed it ““the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth”) has earned the Ross Sea the nickname the ‘Last Ocean’.

However, its ‘untouched’ status has been changing in recent years – declining fish stocks in other regions and sinking fuel prices are causing fishermen to look elsewhere for seafood. Both China and Russia are active in the area, the latter predominantly catching toothfish.

This new initiative is designed to act as a preventative measure, to avoid the reserve falling victim to the impacts of overfishing. In addition to being a huge environmental win for Antarctica, it also underscores the need for and possibility of international cooperation to address our planet’s pressing issues. Let’s see what happens in 35 years.

The deal comes into effect on December 1 2017. Those involved in creating and pushing this initiative through are hopeful that it will inspire similar initaitives and legislation to protect other marine areas. 

To learn more the agreement, head to the CCAMLR website

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