200 Years After Antarctica’s Discovery, It’s Time for Stronger Marine Conservation

Explorers and advocates, both past and present, highlight the need for new protected areas in Southern Ocean

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200 Years After Antarctica’s Discovery, It’s Time for Stronger Marine Conservation
Antarctica’s beauty and grandeur was first discovered by Russian explorer Fabian von Bellingshausen in 1820.
David Merron

Looking back, it seems only fitting that a Russian, Adm. Fabian von Bellingshausen, was the first person to sight Antarctica —200 years ago today, in fact, on Jan. 27, 1820. After all, the Russian national sport is ice hockey, and the country is home to Oymyakon, the coldest permanently inhabited settlement on Earth, with a record low temperature of minus 89.86 F (minus 67.7 C).

Over the ensuing century, explorers including Roald Amundsen (Norway), Ernest Shackleton (Britain), Douglas Mawson (Australia), and Richard E. Byrd (United States) led research-focused expeditions to Antarctica to map out the icy continent and the surrounding Southern Ocean. Those forays laid the groundwork for the historic 1959 Antarctic Treaty, in which 12 countries agreed to set aside their territorial claims and preserve the continent for peace and science.

Now, the 25 member governments of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR), which governs human activity in the Southern Ocean, should honor the anniversary of von Bellingshausen’s discovery and the spirit of the treaty with a renewed push to protect the Southern Ocean.

This marine environment and the species that live there face unprecedented threats, led by climate change. One recent study found that the range of Antarctic krill, a crustacean that underpins the region’s marine food web, has shifted more than 400 kilometers south since the 1970s due to warming ocean waters—a move that could threaten the species that depend on krill. Another study said that chinstrap and emperor penguins are among species threatened with extinction because they have to travel further for food. And a September report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that the ocean and the Earth’s ice-covered regions, or cryosphere, are in jeopardy and recommended that global leaders act to increase the number and size of marine protected areas (MPAs) to provide resilience to climate change.

Fortunately, CCAMLR already has proposals on the table for the creation of three MPAs—in East Antarctica (originally proposed in 2011), the Weddell Sea, and the Antarctic Peninsula. Each would safeguard critical foraging and nursery grounds for Southern Ocean species, including seals, whales, and penguins, and preserve the region’s essential function as a carbon sink.

To help make the case for greater protection of the Southern Ocean, The Pew Charitable Trusts compiled comments from advocates, explorers, and stakeholders with intimate connections to the region. The great Antarctic explorers and the signatories of the 1959 treaty have their names etched in history, and by doing the right thing this year, CCAMLR members could join them.


"I seemed to vow to myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and go on and on till I came to one of the poles of the earth, the end of the axis upon which this great round ball turns."
—Ernest Shackleton, British Antarctic explorer

“I am hopeful that Antarctica in its symbolic robe of white will shine forth as a continent of peace as nations working together there in the cause of science set an example of international cooperation.”
—Richard E. Byrd, American Antarctic explorer

"The land looks like a fairytale."
―Roald Amundsen, Norwegian Antarctic explorer

''The survival of the human race depends on the survival of Antarctica. An oil spill in Antarctic waters can damage the food chain for decades, and this affects even us in the Northern Hemisphere. It is essential that Antarctica be declared a wilderness reserve protected by all nations. Moreover, the seas around Antarctica, which are not covered even by the old Antarctic Treaty, must be protected by a new agreement.''
—Jacques Cousteau, French explorer and conservationist

"The tranquillity of the water heightened the superb effects of this glacial world. Majestic tabular bergs whose crevices exhaled a vaporous azure; lofty spires, radiant turrets and splendid castles; honeycombed masses illumined by pale green light within whose fairy labyrinths the water washed and gurgled. Seals and penguins on magic gondolas were the silent denizens of this dreamy Venice. In the soft glamour of the midsummer midnight sun, we were possessed by a rapturous wonder--the rare thrill of unreality."
―Douglas Mawson, Australian Antarctic explorer

“My hope is that Antarctica continues to be a place for justice, peace and bridge building, where the people of the world can find common ground, and the creatures who live in its waters can be valued and protected, for their own sakes as much as for ours.”
―Lewis Pugh, United Nations Patron of the Oceans

"Antarctica still remains a remote, lonely and desolate continent. A place where it's possible to see the splendors and immensities of the natural world at its most dramatic and, what's more, witness them almost exactly as they were, long, long before human beings ever arrived on the surface of this planet. Long may it remain so."
—David Attenborough, British historian and conservationist

Like the Amazon forest is considered the ‘lungs’ of our beautiful planet, Antarctica can be considered her ‘heart’ – a heart with which we are all connected through the ocean and the seas. The Antarctic marine ecosystems are a key and unique component of life in the ocean. In order to maintain this function it is timely we agree on a representative  system  of  Antarctic  Marine  Protected  Areas. Having had the privilege to see the beauty and the fragility of Antarctica with my own eyes, I am more convinced than ever that it is our role to give this wonderful place the voice it deserves.
—Stephanie Langerock, CCAMLR Commissioner for Belgium 

“Antarctica is thought of as an untouched wilderness, but the reality is different. This is a place threatened by industrial fishing and the long reach of climate change that is warming the ocean waters putting more stress on this incredible place.As we acknowledge the 200th anniversary of Antarctica’s first sighting, the creation of a ring of marine park protection right around the continent is long overdue. It’s time that all nations in the game worked together to make this a reality.”
—Tim Jarvis AM, Australian Polar explorer