Protecting Antarctica's Southern Ocean

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Antarctica’s Southern Ocean is one of the world’s last great wilderness areas. Despite being the coldest, driest, and windiest place on the planet, its frigid waters bustle with thousands of species found nowhere else, from brilliantly hued starfish and bioluminescent worms to pastel octopuses. It is also home to millions of penguins that depend on large swarms of krill, a tiny shrimplike crustacean, as well as other forage species that form the base of a delicate food web. But scientists believe this ecosystem is changing due to the impact of climate change and temperatures that are warming faster than nearly anywhere else on Earth.

To protect this spectacular region, The Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners are working with the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and its member governments to establish a network of large-scale marine protected areas (MPAs) around Antarctica.

CCAMLR has agreed to a framework for creating such a network and has defined nine areas that should receive protection. Three MPA proposals are under formal consideration: for the waters off East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula.

This network includes the world’s largest MPA in the Ross Sea —which CCAMLR’s 25 member governments agreed by consensus to create in 2016. This designation went into force on Dec. 1, 2017, protecting 2.06 million square kilometers, or nearly 800,000 square miles. 

The waters of East Antarctica, which lie south of Australia, feature deep canyons and gorges, and support a wide array of species, among them Adélie and emperor penguins, large colonies of seals, and the top predators of the region, toothfish. Continued research in these waters is needed to learn more about how these species interact and fulfill their unique roles within the region’s ecosystem.

The Weddell Sea is a remote, ice-covered embayment east of the Antarctic Peninsula. Far below the ice live creatures found nowhere else on Earth, such as unique species of glass sponges and cold-water corals. The region is also home to diverse populations of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals, including emperor and Adélie penguins, Antarctic petrels, and Weddell seals.

The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most biologically important areas of the Southern Ocean and has experienced the impacts of a changing climate more than almost anywhere else on Earth. It is also the region most visited by tourists, and the most heavily fished for Antarctic krill. Warming in the area is leading to changing weather conditions and substantial declines in sea ice formation. Sea ice is critical winter habitat for Adélie and chinstrap penguins, crabeater seals, and Antarctic krill. Combined with concentrated fishing for krill in coastal areas, these changing conditions are putting a strain on this fragile ecosystem and its remarkable biodiversity.

In addition to advocating for fully protected marine reserves, Pew supports the development of ecosystem-based fisheries management measures for the Antarctic krill fishery to minimize competition with species that rely on these crustaceans for food.

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CCAMLR 101: How to Protect Antarctica's Marine Life

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Barbara Cvrkel

Officer, Communications