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Antarctic Marine Reserve Talks Fail; Russian Delegation Stalls Progress

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A special meeting of 24 countries and the European Union has failed to create proposed reserves in Antarctica's fragile marine ecosystems. Russia, with some support from Ukraine, challenged the legal basis that would allow for the creation of large-scale marine reserves in Antarctica. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR, called the July 11-16 meeting to reconsider the marine protections after it was unable to approve them when they were first proposed in October 2012. CCAMLR has called special meetings only twice in its 30 year history, and this one was requested by Russian officials.

“The actions of the Russian delegation have put international cooperation and goodwill at risk, the two key ingredients needed for global marine conservation,” said Andrea Kavanagh, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Southern Ocean sanctuaries project. “That we missed a critical opportunity to protect some of the most pristine ocean areas on Earth is a loss for the ecosystem and the international community. We urge world leaders to appeal to Russia to work with other countries, and it is imperative that countries send their delegates back to the table in three months to find consensus to protect Antarctic waters."

Russia's challenge to CCAMLR's legal authority to create marine protected areas (MPAs) was raised  in a media briefing here on Monday (recording here). CCAMLR's Conservation Measure 91-04 clearly outlines the process for designation and management of MPAs, and has already created an MPA in the South Orkney Islands. CCAMLR was formed in 1982 to address the conservation and sustainable use of marine life in the Southern Ocean. It makes decisions by consensus.

The proposed Southern Ocean protections included a Ross Sea marine reserve of 1.6 million square kilometres -- where no fishing would be allowed -- within a 2.3 million square kilometre marine protected area, and seven marine protected areas on the East Antarctic coast, covering an additional 1.6 million square kilometres. The Ross Sea plan was proposed by the United States and New Zealand; the East Antarctic protections were championed by Australia, France, and the E.U.

That we missed a critical opportunity to protect some of the most pristine ocean areas on Earth is a loss for the ecosystem and the international community.-Andrea Kavanagh

Less than 1 percent of the global ocean – about 2.2 million square kilometers in area – is fully protected. By comparison, about 12 percent of the Earth's land area has been designated as protected, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. 

Protecting Antarctica's Southern Ocean has far-reaching implications. Upwellings of nutrient-rich waters from its depths are transported along huge oceanic conveyor-belts through the entire Southern Hemisphere and into the North Atlantic Ocean. Scientists estimate that three-quarters of all marine life is sustained by this current. Protecting key areas of the Southern Ocean will have far-reaching benefits for marine life and those who rely on the oceans for food.

A 2011 study published in the journal Biological Conservation called the Ross Sea “The least altered marine ecosystem on Earth,” with unusually large and closely interacting populations of several marine bird and mammal species. The Southern Ocean is home to thousands of unique species including most of the world's penguins, whales, seabirds, colossal squid, and the remarkable but heavily fished Antarctic and Patagonian toothfish. The region is critical for scientific research, both for studying how intact marine ecosystems function and for determining the accelerating impacts of global climate change.

“We have one more opportunity later this year to keep these last wild places intact,” said Kavanagh. “Governments need to take this important step toward cooperative action to protect and conserve marine life in the world's oceans. It's critical that they get it right.”

Pew has supported the conservation of the Southern Ocean for two decades, and has worked with scientists, environmental groups, and governments to identify marine areas with important environmental and scientific value.