Analysis

World Oceans Day: Melting Ice and the Benefits of Marine Reserves

There is no escaping the bleak news leading up to this year’s World Oceans Day on June 8.

Recent reports indicate that Antarctica is undergoing an accelerated ice melt that is likely to lead to a significant rise in sea levels over time. While the possible long-term implications of warming oceans are of great concern and debate, scientific evidence clearly shows that the melting ice is already having a detrimental effect on parts of the Southern Ocean ecosystem and penguin habitats.

A 2013 study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute found that the emperor penguins of Terre Adélie in East Antarctica—made famous in the documentary “March of the Penguins”—are already in decline. The most ice-dependent of all penguins, they often trek up to 75 miles to reach open water so they can forage for food for themselves and their chicks.

Without a large amount of sea ice that provides places to rest and to evade predators, the birds’ ability to find food and protect themselves will diminish. If ice coverage continues to shrink, this colony will decline to only 500 to 600 breeding pairs by 2100, a sharp drop from its current 3,000 pairs, according to the study.

Threats from climate change have prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider protecting emperor penguins under the Endangered Species Act. Designed to stabilize at-risk animal populations and prevent their extinction, the law ensures that U.S. federal agencies act in a way that does not harm endangered species.

In the case of emperor penguins, this could require that any fishing vessels traveling under the U.S. flag take special care in areas that overlap with the Antarctic foraging waters of emperor penguins, which would help to mitigate the effects of melting and shifting ice, among other issues. The Pew Charitable Trusts submitted nearly 16,700 public comments in support of these protections. A final decision could be made this fall.

“Listing emperor penguins under the Endangered Species Act would be a first step in acknowledging the impact of climate change,” said Andrea Kavanagh, Pew’s director of global penguin conservation. “But action in the United States is not enough. The international community should come together and make a commitment to protect vulnerable Antarctic ecosystems.”

Along with the potential Fish and Wildlife Service decision, there is another major opportunity for penguin conservation this year. The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR, is the regional authority responsible for protecting marine life in the Southern Ocean.

A consensus-based organization made up of 24 countries and the European Union, CCAMLR has a mandate to designate large areas of the Southern Ocean for protection. Still, previous proposals to create marine reserves have been stymied by member countries with interests in Antarctic fisheries. 

In October, CCAMLR has another chance to help conserve valuable penguin habitat by creating large-scale, fully protected marine reserves in the Ross Sea and East Antarctic waters.

Although marine reserves do not directly combat climate change, these areas help build ecosystem resilience, grow species abundance and diversity and keep food webs intact. They can also provide penguins with refuge and a reliable source of food as the flightless birds adapt to warming waters.

“All CCAMLR countries have a chance to make a strong commitment to the Southern Ocean and penguins,” Kavanagh said. “On next year’s World Oceans Day, I hope that we will be celebrating the establishment of Antarctic marine reserves and the beginning of a wave of action to conserve and protect ocean life across the globe.”

For more World Oceans Day, explore 10 Spectacular Underwater Places Worth Protecting.

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Leah Weiser

Senior Associate, Communications

202.540.6304