High Hopes for New Antarctic Protections

Global leaders to hold special meeting in June, with a focus on Southern Ocean safeguards

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High Hopes for New Antarctic Protections
A few dozen penguins stand on an iceberg on a sea that appears a shimmering grey due to the reflection of the sun. Many other icebergs are visible, and in the far background is the edge of what appears to be a very large ice sheet.
Adélie penguins rest on an iceberg in the Antarctic Peninsula. Climate change and concentrated fishing for krill are jeopardizing the health of the region’s ecosystem and marine species.
John B. Weller

With the April 16 release of their G-7 Climate, Energy, and Environment Ministers' Communiqué, leaders of the International Group of Seven (G-7) publicly committed to approve proposed marine protected areas (MPAs) around Antarctica and to urge other countries with a stake in Southern Ocean management to follow suit.

And leaders of the G7 countries—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K., and the U.S.—will have the chance to fulfill that commitment in June, in Santiago, Chile, when the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) will convene an extraordinary intersessional meeting—only the third such meeting in CCAMLR’s 41-year history—on those MPA proposals.

CCAMLR members committed to establishing an MPA network by 2012 but so far have only designated two: the South Orkney Southern Islands Southern Shelf MPA and the Ross Sea region MPA, the largest protected area on Earth.

More recently, the commission also committed to updating the management of the Southern Ocean’s krill fishery—which includes revising rules on where and when fishing can take place—so that the animals that feed on krill are not negatively affected by the combined impacts of concentrated fishing and a rapidly changing climate. CCAMLR members confirmed last year that the krill and MPA efforts must advance together, and for good reason: Marine scientists overwhelmingly agree that establishing networks of large MPAs, complemented by an ecosystem-based fisheries management approach, is essential for protecting the Southern Ocean’s biodiversity and making it more resilient to climate change.

The special meeting in Santiago will test whether world leaders are serious about protecting 30% of the global ocean by 2030—part of the “30 by 30” target that the 196 parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to in Montreal last December. World leaders reaffirmed that 30 by 30 commitment again in March, in New York, when they signed a United Nations treaty to protect the high seas.

Since those two meetings, the June CCAMLR special meeting will be the first opportunity in which world leaders could create MPAs in the Weddell Sea and in the waters off the Antarctic Peninsula and East Antarctica. To make good on its 2012 commitment, CCAMLR must protect another nearly 4 million square kilometers (approximately 1.5 million square miles) throughout the Southern Ocean.

Protecting the Southern Ocean is a global priority for many reasons. For one thing, the circulation of its deep, nutrient-filled currents helps feed the planet and have irreplaceable global climate-regulating abilities. The Southern Ocean is also home to iconic species, like emperor, Adélie, and chinstrap penguins; minke, humpback, and killer whales; and krill, the vital crustaceans at the center of the region’s food web. MPAs that protect Southern Ocean biodiversity would also support productive fisheries and tourism as well as safeguard vital genetic resources, such as enzymes from sponges used to cure cancers and other diseases.

Unfortunately, the Southern Ocean is warming at a rapid rate. Not only did this year mark the lowest level of sea ice ever recorded, which is problematic for species in the region, including penguins and krill, but the higher ocean temperatures are also slowing a current that originates in Antarctica and carries heat, carbon, oxygen, and nutrients around the globe. If that current collapses, as scientists predict it could in a few decades, marine ecosystems worldwide could be so badly damaged that they would take centuries to recover.

Climate change isn’t the only threat to the region and the species that thrive there. For many years, the science supporting the need for MPAs has been mounting. For example, research shows that:

Overly concentrated krill fishing may not only affect penguins in the Antarctic Peninsula—it could also negatively influence rebounding whale populations. One example of this threat occurred in 2022 when, as The Guardian reported, four huge vessels were fishing for krill in the middle of a mega-pod of at least 1,000 fin whales as they were feeding just off the South Orkney Islands. The boats were scooping up tons of the very food the whales need to survive and thrive.

"The United States is looking forward to the third extraordinary meeting of the commission, which is focusing on marine protected areas,” said Elizabeth Phelps, U.S. Commissioner for CCAMLR. “We continue to support the designation of large-scale MPAs in the Southern Ocean, as they are essential for conserving Antarctic marine living resources and biodiversity and building resilience to impacts from a changing climate. We are hopeful that all members will approach this meeting with flexibility so that CCAMLR can achieve its goal of designating a system of MPAs in the Southern Ocean based on the best scientific evidence available."

“Chile is honored to host this special meeting,” said Marcos Correa, head of the Chilean delegation to CCAMLR. “It’s critical that we find consensus—through dialogue and an inclusive approach—on how to progress MPA design, designation, and implementation in the Southern Ocean and establish research and monitoring plans based on the best scientific evidence available. As a co-sponsor, alongside Argentina, of the Antarctic Peninsula marine protected area proposal, Chile is committed to the conservation objectives of the convention, protecting the Antarctic marine ecosystems that surround the peninsula.”

Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy urges global leaders to work together again, as they did in Montreal and New York, to protect these globally important areas of the Southern Ocean. Time is running short to help our ocean overcome the myriad—and mounting—threats it faces, and the world is watching in hopes that CCAMLR does the right thing.

Andrea Kavanagh directs Antarctic and Southern Ocean protection work for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.

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