© Chad Naughton (NSF photo)
This fact sheet was revised June 11, 2019 to reflect the current status of the Southern Ocean MPA proposals.
The Southern Ocean, surrounding Antarctica, is one of the least altered marine ecosystems on Earth. Encompassing 15 percent of the world’s ocean, it is home to thousands of species found nowhere else, from brilliantly hued starfish and bioluminescent worms to pastel octopuses. It is also home to millions of penguins that depend on large swarms of krill, a tiny shrimplike crustacean, as well as other forage species that form the base of a delicate food web. Scientists believe this ecosystem is changing due to the impact of climate change and temperatures that are warming faster than nearly anywhere else on Earth.
These waters are also vital to the health of the planet, producing strong upwelling currents that carry critical nutrients to seas around the world.
To protect this spectacular region, The Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners are working with the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) and its member governments to establish a network of large-scale marine protected areas (MPAs) around Antarctica.
CCAMLR is an international body made up of 24 countries and the European Union, established in 1982 with the primary mission of protecting the Southern Ocean’s diverse marine life. While prioritizing conservation, CCAMLR allows limited fishing in some areas in accordance with its ecosystem-based management approach. The main fishing activities in these waters target toothfish and Antarctic krill.
Some of the most pronounced effects of climate change on Earth, such as warming and acidifying seas,3 and changes in sea-ice concentration and duration,4 are found in Antarctica. Studies show that MPAs can help build ecosystem resilience to those changes by eliminating stresses, such as fishing.5
A network of MPAs would not only preserve connectivity among the many unique ecosystems of the Southern Ocean, allowing marine life to migrate between protected areas for breeding and foraging, but it would also significantly contribute to global ocean protection goals.
Over 1.5 million pairs of Adélie, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins call the Antarctic Peninsula home.10
These waters are a sanctuary of marine wonder, home to populations of Patagonian toothfish, squid, lanternfish, and even octopuses, sharks, and nine fish species found nowhere else.11
Sea Both seabirds and mammals are found throughout this region, including minke, humpback, blue and fin whales12, as well as Weddell, crab-eater and elephant seals.13
As the most isolated island in the world,14 Bouvet Island is mostly covered by glaciers with a rich sea floor, including sponges, molluscs, crustaceans, and worms.15
Eddies lying between two fronts of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current drive annual phytoplankton blooms,16 drawing fish and squid that in turn feed local populations of sea-birds and mammals, including globally significant breeding populations of penguins; northern and southern giant petrels; white chinned petrels; wandering, sooty, and light mantled albatrosses; and the threatened grey-headed and wandering albatrosses.17
Lying between the Antarctic Convergence and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the Kerguelen Production Zone is an open-water, highly productive region with rugged deep-water habitat that nourishes whales and sea-birds migrating through the area as well as immense populations of land-based predators, including breeding king penguins,18 Antarctic fur seals, and elephant seals.19
Toothfish, the top fish predators in East Antarctica, produce their own anti-freeze proteins to keep their blood from crystallizing20 and can grow to nearly 2 metres in length. Recently, scientists have discovered that nearly double the amount of Adélie penguins live in East Antarctica than was previously thought.21
This region supports remarkable biodiversity, including more than 150 types of starfish and urchins, 40 species of which are found nowhere else on Earth;22 minke whales; Weddell and leopard seals; and a genetically distinct population of orca, or killer whale, referred to as ecotype-C, which is adapted to feed on Antarctic toothfish.23
These seas have significant sea ice cover, making large areas unreachable to researchers and limited to fishers. A recent survey of the sea-floor community found that 96 percent of the region’s isopods, a type of crustacean, were species new to science.24
Successfully implementing a network of MPAs in the Southern Ocean would exemplify global cooperation in the face of increasing environmental challenges.
In 2016, the annual CCAMLR meeting showcased an example of such cooperation with the consensus designation of the world’s largest MPA, in the Ross Sea. The 2.06 million-square-kilometre (almost 800,000-square-mile)10 area includes 1.55 million square kilometres of open water and extends to the coastline under the Ross Ice Shelf. The MPA, more than three times the size of France, went into force in December 2017.
With the establishment of the Ross Sea Region MPA, CCAMLR has taken the first step needed to create a network of large-scale MPAs. The next steps toward reaching this goal must include designating the proposed Weddell Sea, East Antarctic and Antarctic Peninsula (Domain 1) MPAs. Further efforts must also be taken to safeguard Domain 9.