As Tipping Points Near Global Leaders Must Commit to Southern Ocean Conservation Progress

International meetings provide China with leadership opportunities this year

As Tipping Points Near Global Leaders Must Commit to Southern Ocean Conservation Progress
Weddell seals
The designation of marine protections in East Antarctica would benefit many species, including Weddell seals.
Laurent Ballesta Andromède Oceanology

Sixty years ago, at the height of the Cold War and amid mounting geopolitical tension and unrest, the 12 original signatories of the Antarctic Treaty (AT) agreed to set Antarctica aside as a continent dedicated to peace and science. That mission is more important today than ever, with climate change causing rapid and alarming changes in Antarctica and, especially, the Southern Ocean.

At the treaty signing in Washington, those governments, which included the world’s superpowers at the time, agreed to meet regularly to further the agreement’s principles. The forum is called the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and this year it was held virtually, and hosted from Paris, from 14 to 21 June.

Southern Ocean conservation does not typically take center stage during the ATCM; that responsibility falls on the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctica’s Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a sister organization to ATCM. However, the importance of Southern Ocean protection to the health of Antarctica and the globe is vital, a message that percolated throughout much of this year’s ATCM with several high-profile officials calling for definitive ocean protection action at this year’s CCAMLR meetings.

At its annual meeting this fall, CCAMLR will consider three proposals for Southern Ocean marine protected areas (MPAs), one each off East Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, and in the Weddell Sea.

French President Emmanuel Macron closed the ATCM by noting the groundbreaking “philosophy and courage” of the original AT signatories and calling on all Antarctic Treaty members to honor that original commitment by taking action in the coming weeks—for example, through dialogues with key decision makers—and committing to “preserve 2 million square kilometers by creating these new marine protected areas in East Antarctica and the Weddell Sea.”

This is a pivotal year for Southern Ocean conservation, and the ATCM and CCAMLR meetings are opportunities for global superpowers to find common ground amid high geopolitical tensions and looming environmental threats. In a recent Wilson Center report, leading Antarctic scientists warn that climate change is pushing the Southern Ocean to critical tipping points, which may affect global marine and climate systems.

It is therefore particularly important that CCAMLR member countries overcome obstacles this year to protect more of Antarctica’s fragile environment. One government that could help achieve that is China, which joined CCAMLR in 2007 and has a growing role in the Antarctic krill fishery. China will host the 15th Conference of the Parties for the Convention on Biological Diversity in October (although the meeting may be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic).

Nengye Liu, an associate professor and director of the Centre for Environmental Law at Macquarie University, believes that the October conference is a “good opportunity for China, as the host country, to showcase its leadership in global biodiversity conservation.” Additionally, Liu says the biodiversity conference, which is scheduled just before the annual CCAMLR meeting, is an opportunity for China to demonstrate its commitment to global conservation by announcing its support for the three Southern Ocean MPA proposals CCAMLR is considering.

Antartcic Krill in aquarium, closeup
Krill are at the center of the Southern Ocean food web. This year, current management measures for the fishery expire.
Getty Images iStockPhoto

Also at this year’s CCAMLR meeting, China and other commission member nations must renew or revise a conservation measure on ecosystem-based management of the Antarctic krill fishery; the current management measure is set to expire this year. China, with one of the largest Antarctic krill fishing fleets, can have a significant impact in guaranteeing the preservation of the Southern Ocean for future generations of humanity by securing agreement on a new conservation measure in October that improves protection for krill predators. If consensus on an improved conservation measure is not possible, then ensuring an extension of the existing measure is imperative to avoid a regression in fishery management that would be dangerous to the ecosystem.

Building off of the positive momentum at this year’s ATCM, the nations that have committed to preserve Antarctica for peace and science must continue to come together in the next few months in the same spirit of cooperation to advance Southern Ocean protections. It’s the right thing to do—for the ocean, wildlife and people—and will show that the work of the past 60 years was not in vain.

Nicole Bransome works on The Pew Charitable Trusts protecting Antarctica’s Southern Ocean project.

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