Just a few months ago, the international conservation community was preparing for a historic year for the ocean with numerous international biodiversity and climate change gatherings: the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, the UN Ocean Conference, the 15th Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of the Parties, and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change COP26. Although all of these gatherings have been canceled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one significant opportunity for ocean protection still remains in 2020: The annual meeting, scheduled for October, of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—the body, made up of 25 nations and the European Union (EU), responsible for the protection of biodiversity in the Southern Ocean.
The EU has a leading role to play in securing the support of other CCAMLR members for proposals that the commission is considering for large-scale Southern Ocean marine protected areas (MPAs). Three such proposals are on the table: a 950,000 square kilometer (367,000 square miles) area off East Antarctica, led by the EU, France, and Australia; one in the Weddell Sea, led by the EU, Germany, and Norway, covering 2.2 million square kilometers (849,400 square miles); and another that would cover 650,000 square kilometers (251,000 square miles) around the Antarctic Peninsula, led by Argentina and Chile. By designating these three MPAs this year, CCAMLR would notch the largest act of environmental protection in human history, safeguarding nearly 4 million square kilometers (1.5 million square miles) of ocean, an area comparable to the size of continental Europe.
Why is it so important to protect this remote region, and for the EU to take a leading role in the process?
The Southern Ocean has a blend of biodiversity found nowhere else on Earth and is extremely sensitive to climate change. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that global warming is making the Antarctic ice sheet increasingly unstable, which could lead to catastrophic sea level rise in coastal zones around the planet over the next few generations. Just this year, a record heat wave in the Antarctic Peninsula drove temperatures above 20°C (68°F). The rapid and ongoing melting of the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica could trigger a sea level rise of 0.5 meters (1.64 feet) globally, experts say.
The Southern Ocean’s unique ecosystems are critical to the health of the global ocean. For example, Antarctic krill play an important role in sequestering carbon, and the Southern Ocean, with its circumpolar current, sustains marine biodiversity throughout the world by transporting vital nutrients around the globe. Changes in sea ice are affecting the marine ecosystem in profound ways, including changes to Antarctic krill populations, the keystone species in the region’s food web. These changes are having cascading effects on krill predators such as penguins, seals, and whales.
Studies show that MPAs provide refuge for marine life and help make ecosystems more resilient to the effects of climate change. CCAMLR is consensus-driven, which means that all decisions require approval by all member governments. Russia and China have not yet agreed to designate the three new proposed MPAs. But in a promising move, the latest draft of the EU Biodiversity Strategy, which outlines biodiversity conservation work for institutions and member states, includes an encouraging commitment to bring all CCAMLR members together in support of these vital MPAs in 2020:
The statement shows that EU policymakers recognize the importance of a healthy Southern Ocean in tackling global climate change and reversing the decline in biodiversity, and that strong EU leadership could help persuade Russia and China to vote for the MPAs. The Pew Charitable Trusts encourages the EU and its member states to approve and implement the biodiversity strategy as soon as possible, and act on the commitment to Southern Ocean MPAs. EU leadership is critical to bringing CCAMLR together to safeguard these unique and pristine ocean ecosystems before it is too late to save them.
Emil Dediu is an officer supporting Pew’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean work.