07/15/2013 - Antarctica’s vast ice floes are forbidding yet enthralling. They cling to the continent’s coastline surrounded by the Southern Ocean, whose starkness belies the rich diversity of life below the surface. The ocean is home to brilliantly hued starfish, bioluminescent worms, and pastel-colored octopuses. Exotic fish, protected by their bodies’ natural antifreeze, share the krill-rich waters with penguins, seabirds, seals, and whales—all thriving essentially as they have for millennia. These waters are one of the few pristine spots left on Earth, making them an ideal venue for scientists to learn about biodiversity, the evolution of our planet, and the effects of climate change.
Yet even at the bottom of the world, there are threats. Industrial fishing is depleting the ocean’s toothfish, better known on restaurant menus as Chilean sea bass, and upsetting the natural ecosystem. This summer, 24 countries and the European Union will consider creation of marine reserves in two of the most important regions of the Southern Ocean—the East Antarctic and the Ross Sea, habitat for some of the world’s most important penguin species. Mindful of the area’s rich marine diversity, The Pew Charitable Trusts is helping to lead the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a group of conservation organizations focused on protecting the Southern Ocean region, through designation of the reserves.
“If nations reach consensus this summer, the decision will mark the first reserves in international waters on a large scale, and the beginning of what we hope is a circumpolar network of reserves around Antarctica,” says Karen Sack, Pew’s senior director for international ocean conservation.
The United States and New Zealand are leading the Ross Sea effort, while France, Australia, and the European Union are championing the East Antarctic proposal. In his first comments about protecting the world’s oceans since becoming secretary of state, John Kerry spoke in support of the move at a reception this spring hosted by Pew at the National Geographic Society in Washington.
“The Ross Sea is a natural laboratory. We disrespect it at our peril,” he told the crowd. Kerry, who was a champion of ocean and fishery protection while in the Senate, described the work to preserve the sea as “a challenge to our commitment to science and facts and what we believe in.”
Many times in recent years, Pew marine fellow John Weller, a Boulder, CO-based photographer, has traveled to Antarctica to capture the Ross Sea’s ethereal majesty. Weller says the visits have changed his life and the way he views the world.
“The health of the world’s oceans is declining, and we need to take a stand. We need to open the door to a new global ocean culture,” says Weller, whose photos, featured here, are drawn from his book The Last Ocean, to be published this fall. “The Ross Sea holds the key.”
For more information, go to pewenvironment.org/southernocean.