The seas surrounding Antarctica are among the world’s most pristine, but fishing vessels are set to move in. Next week, there is a meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) that may try to contain the rush to access the region’s natural resources.
There are currently four proposals to create vast marine protected areas (MPAs) that would tightly regulate fishing activities in the region. However, protection will require a unanimous agreement by CCAMLR’s members, which includes 24 countries and the EU. Some, like Japan and China, have recorded skepticism about any kind of Antarctic MPA. If the proposals are blocked, it would set back the conservation effort by more than a decade, states Alex Rogers, a conservation biologist at the University of Oxford, UK.
There is only one large section of Antarctic waters that is currently designated as an MPA. It’s a zone of 94,000 square kilometers near the South Orkney Islands. The USA and New Zealand are advancing two rival proposals to turn Antarctica’s Ross Sea, which is home to seals, whales, fish, penguins, and other wildlife, into one of the world’s largest reserves.
Commercial fishing in the Ross Sea is lucrative, especially for the Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni). The US proposal would ensure the protection of 1.8 million square kilometers, with 800,000 of those completely off-limits to any kind of fishing. The New Zealand proposal would cover some 2.5 million square kilometers, with fishing allowed in some areas. They tried to bring forth a joint proposal but couldn’t reach an agreement.
A UK-led effort is seeking protection for areas exposed by collapsing ice shelves around the Antarctic Peninsula, which can quickly become populated by animals, making them attractive to fishing fleets. If these areas are protected, it would allow scientists to study how the marine ecosystem changes after the collapse of the ice. The fourth proposal is by Australia, which would create a network of reserves around eastern Antarctica. All of these proposals are scientifically sound, but success is far from assured.