Southern Ocean Conservation Body Must Lean on Science, Expert Says

Rapid change in Antarctica raises threats to marine species and ecosystem

Southern Ocean Conservation Body Must Lean on Science, Expert Says
Humpback whales migrate to Antarctica’s Southern Ocean to forage for krill.

This article was updated with a link to Nature on June 20, 2018.

The Southern Ocean is one of the last wildernesses on the planet, with abundant marine life that thrives in icy waters and includes species found nowhere else. But this region faces threats, including from climate change, and is warming faster than nearly anywhere else on Earth. Scientists are continuing to study the region to better understand how the ecosystem is changing, and how best to protect the krill, penguins, whales, and other species that live there. Such protections are critical to preserve large areas of the Southern Ocean as a living laboratory for climate change research, and to keep the intricate food web of this wild, remote place intact.

On June 19, scientists will gather in Davos, Switzerland, for the biannual meeting of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) to discuss past, present, and future research that might help the body tasked with protecting the Southern Ocean’s biodiversity—the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—agree to better conservation measures.

The Pew Charitable Trusts caught up with Cassandra Brooks, an assistant professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado Boulder, before her trip to the SCAR conference to learn about her commitment to Antarctic and Southern Ocean conservation and her recent commentary in the journal Nature on the threats facing the region.

Q: How, and when, did you become an advocate for protecting the Southern Ocean?

A: Since my first trip to the Antarctic in January 2006, I’ve felt a visceral compulsion to protect this place. I worked toward this goal first through science, studying the life history of Antarctic toothfish, the top fish predator in the Southern Ocean. I then turned to media, working alongside my husband John Weller on The Last Ocean project to publish articles, websites, [and] a book, and even help produce a feature documentary on the Ross Sea. Finally, I turned to studying the policy process to understand the barriers and facilitators to conserving Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

Q: What makes this area so special to you?

A: On my first trip, I remember the wind whipping, icebergs scattering the horizon. I had just finished a 12-hour shift on the deck of a research vessel sampling fish, including the Antarctic toothfish—the topic of my graduate thesis and the top fish predator of the Southern Ocean. I heard a brisk exhale off the side of the boat and the wet scent of krill hit my face. I peered to see a humpback whale swimming just a few feet from our vessel. I had never felt so alive, small, inspired, and humbled.

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, iciest, driest, and most remote continent, with a rich history of exploration and science, and exceptional beauty. The Antarctic is vital to Earth systems as it stores around 90 percent of the planet’s freshwater, regulates global climate, and drives ocean circulation.  And despite temperatures of minus 128 degrees Fahrenheit, winds of up to 200 mph, and a night that lasts half of the year, life thrives in abundance. The Southern Ocean teems with whales, seals, toothfish, krill, and more which have survived and evolved under these extreme conditions.

Cassandra Brooks
Cassandra Brooks holds an Antarctic toothfish aboard a research vessel during an expedition to the Southern Ocean.
Darci Lombard

Q: What inspired you to write the Nature commentary about how this region is suffering due to climate change and overfishing?

A: The Antarctic, particularly the northwest coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. This has potentially frightening repercussions globally, including sea level rise and disruptions in ocean circulation and climate regulation, and locally: fluctuations in ice cover, shifts in population distribution, and decreases in primary productivity. Declines in ice-dependent krill, the foundation of the Southern Ocean food web, could cascade throughout the ecosystem. And science moves slower than the pace of change. We need to act quickly and with more precaution to give Antarctic biota the best chance of thriving.

The Southern Ocean supports commercial fisheries for krill and two species of toothfish. It makes little sense to use so much fuel, time, and energy traveling to the most remote and ice-choked corners of the earth in pursuit of fish. But because collapsing fish populations across the world are forcing vessels into deeper and more remote waters, CCAMLR’s 25 members are experiencing increasing pressure to loosen their strict conservation approach.

Antarctic krill
Antarctic krill form the base of the Southern Ocean food web.
Flip Nicklin/Getty Images

Q: What preventative actions could CCAMLR take to help preserve this last ocean wilderness?

A: The objective of CCAMLR’s convention is to conserve all biota and ecosystems in the Southern Ocean. Although fishing is allowed, it is not a right and does not trump the commission’s responsibility for conservation. CCAMLR has struggled to incorporate climate change scenarios into management and, to avoid passing tipping points in the marine food web, must be more precautionary.

In our commentary, we called on CCAMLR to better protect Antarctic fisheries in three basic ways: implement meaningful marine reserves, incorporate climate change scenarios into decision-making, and support independent research and monitoring.

The Southern Ocean needs well-designed marine reserves—large no-take areas established for long periods, ideally indefinitely, and with reference areas so that scientists can compare environmental changes in areas that are fished against those that aren’t.

CCAMLR should also do more to support research independent of the fishing enterprise (the commission currently depends on the fishing industry for data). SCAR could work with CCAMLR sci­entists, independent experts, and nongovernmental organizations to identify crucial questions, and what is required to answer them. CCAMLR member States would have to go further and to support fisheries-independent research and monitoring. The commission needs to be more transparent, share its data for outside analysis, and invite SCAR and other independent experts into its scien­tific working groups, from which they are currently excluded.

Q: CCAMLR designated the Ross Sea Region Marine Protected Area by consensus in 2016.  How do you think the commission could replicate that consensus to fulfill its commitment to create a network of marine protected areas throughout the Southern Ocean?

Reaching consensus on the Ross Sea MPA took years of intense negotiation and scientific planning, and incredible effort from conservation groups and citizens all over the world. It may still take some time for the remaining areas to achieve protection.

But CCAMLR has demonstrated leadership; no other international management body has outpaced it in adopting marine protected areas. Three large areas remain under negotiation for protection: the Western Antarctic Peninsula, the Weddell Sea, and the East Antarctic. Negotiations will resume in October at CCAMLR’s annual meeting in Hobart, Tasmania. Ultimately the 25 members need to find the political will to see the effort through.

Q: Both of your children’s names show your strong connection to Antarctica. What are your hopes for the future of this unique place?

Our daughter is Kayden Adelie, with her first name meaning warrior, so she’s our warrior penguin. Already, at 4 years old, she has expressed a desire to study and protect penguins in Antarctica. Our son Orion Ross, who has just turned 10 months, is similarly named, for the constellation of the hunter and because he arrived shortly after the creation of the Ross Sea MPA.

I hope my children will one day witness a thriving Southern Ocean wilderness. I hope they will see the Ross Sea I did, the one that is still the most productive stretch of Antarctic waters, that supports an incredible array of fishes, invertebrates, seals, whales, and seabirds—including more than one-quarter of the world’s emperor penguins, and more than one-third of all Adélie penguins.

But this vision requires that we keep a Ross Sea MPA in place (it is set to expire in 35 years) and that CCAMLR nations find the political will to adopt a system of MPAs in time to safeguard all Antarctic marine ecosystems. When they do, I can tell my children stories of great international triumphs, and how the Antarctic continues to be a place of peace, science, and conservation; a hopeful beacon for the rest of the world to look to.

Cassandra Brooks
The Brooks-Weller family, from left to right: Kayden Adélie, John, Orion Ross and Cassandra.
Courtesy: Cassandra Brooks