Antarctica’s Southern Ocean is in jeopardy. Commercial fishing and a changing climate are threatening this ecologically rich and fragile marine environment. One fix that’s on the table is the creation of a network of marine protected areas (MPAs).
Large, no-take, permanent marine reserves would preserve connections between ecosystems, giving marine life contiguous areas for migration, breeding, and foraging. Research shows that such protections also make ecosystems more resilient to the effects of a changing climate. Rising temperatures are already affecting species in the region. In 2017, for example, only two Adélie penguin chicks survived in two colonies–one group of 40,000 penguins, the other less than half that size. Four years earlier, the latter colony lost every chick. An MPA network would also help safeguard krill. These tiny crustaceans form the base of the Southern Ocean food web, and penguins and many other Antarctic species depend on them.
MPAs in the Southern Ocean would also significantly contribute to global ocean protection targets. Scientists, conservation groups, the fishing industry, and governments around the world support a goal of protecting 30 percent of the world’s oceans by 2030. The United Kingdom’s environment secretary, Michael Gove, stressed last month that this proportion must be conserved to maintain global ocean health. The fastest way to reach that goal is to protect more of the Southern Ocean.
Starting today at the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), leaders from 24 countries and the European Union have the opportunity to demonstrate international cooperation and make progress on a Southern Ocean MPA network, which was first promised in 2009 and envisioned to be in place by 2012.
CCAMLR established the South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf MPA in 2009 and took another major step in October 2016 by creating the Ross Sea Region MPA, the largest protected area on Earth and the first large-scale reserve on the high seas. This year, its member governments can break a seven-year stalemate on designating an MPA in East Antarctica. In addition, designating MPAs in the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula, the latter newly submitted this year, would bring the total to more than 3.2 million square kilometers of Southern Ocean waters.
By designating an MPA in East Antarctica, CCAMLR members would protect one of Earth’s last wild places and ensure that the region’s intact ecosystems remain healthy.