Antarctica is not only the southernmost territory of the world but also the home to approximately 72 percent of the freshwater on the planet. It is a continent full of nonrenewable resources such as coal, gas, gold, oil, chromium, and it provides habitat for thousands of species not found anywhere else in the world. Thanks to one of humanity’s most important agreements, the Antarctic Treaty, the continent has been reserved since 1961 for science and research, and the Environmental Protocol (1991) expressly prohibits the exploitation of mineral resources in the continent.
The Antarctic Treaty applies to all the land and ice shelves that are found south of the 60º parallel South. But what happens to the seas around Antarctica? Are they also protected and reserved for future generations? The answer is unfortunately no. The Southern Ocean, the least polluted aquatic ecosystem on Earth, is currently threatened by the fishing industry in its growing ambition for Antarctic toothfish and krill.
In 1982, after the exploitation of krill began, the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Resources (CCAMLR) was created with the aim of conserving Antarctic marine fauna. CCAMLR regulates fishing of the Southern Ocean species, especially toothfish, crab and krill, which is an essential link in the food chain of the main Antarctic wildlife. This organization is composed of 24 member countries and makes all decisions by unanimity.
The toothfish industry began in the mid-1990s and is performed primarily in the Ross Sea region and East Antarctica, causing a strong environmental impact on the southern ecosystem. The Antarctic toothfish, more famous as Chilean Sea Bass, is a slow-growing fish that can live up to 40 years. The exponential increase in its fishing in recent years is due to its success in many restaurants and luxury hotels where it is coveted for its flavor and texture. The countries currently leading the toothfish industry are New Zealand and Chile.
In 2009, New Zealand and the United States submitted to CCAMLR a proposal to create a Marine Protected Area (MPAs) in the Ross Sea region, an area covering over 2.3 million square kilometers. According to a report by National Geographic, the Ross Sea is the least polluted and most pristine aquatic ecosystem in the world, teeming with life and beauty. One-third of all Adélie penguins and one-quarter of all Emperor penguins make their home there. Antarctic minke whales abound. In most of the world’s oceans, top predators have been removed through overfishing, but in the Ross Sea predators still thrive, including Weddell and leopard seals, a unique subspecies of orca, and the Antarctic toothfish – the top fish predator in the Southern Ocean. The Ross Sea was considered an unexplored region until recently because of its extreme geographic location: it is the closest sea to the South Pole. However, climate change and modernization of fishing vessels have enabled people to reach this innermost point of our planet. Because of its ecological and conservation significance, the Ross Sea has come to be called The Last Ocean.
In another encouraging move to protect the Southern Ocean, Australia, France, and the EU have proposed the establishment of MPAs in 7 regions of East Antarctica covering a total of 1.6 million square kilometers. East Antarctica is home to 42 percent of Ross seals, minke and blue whales, humpback, over 50,000 Emperor penguins, 700,000 Adelie penguins, and over one million petrels. It is a little-explored area and is preserved almost without human activity.
While most of the world’s oceans have suffered severe overfishing and pollution, the Southern Ocean has remained largely unscathed. Scientists consider it a living laboratory, which may offer a last chance to study how a healthy marine ecosystem functions. Some areas with little to no human interference or impact—such as the Ross Sea and East Antarctica—provide scientists with the chance to gain greater understand of how species and ecosystems respond to environmental change. MPAs aim to preserve valuable marine resources of these polar regions and to protect the wildlife that live there (penguins, seals, albatrosses, whales, petrels, etc.).
Despite the favorable vote of 22 countries, a veto by Russia and Ukraine paralyzed the creation of MPAs in 4 consecutive meetings in 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. A plan for a Ross Sea and East Antarctica MPA will again come up for discussion next week, during CCAMLR’s annual meeting. This year, Russia is the chair of the commission, and negotiations during 2016 have shown positively responses. Recognizing the power of an MPA as a fisheries management tool and setting aside an extraordinary stretch of ocean for the sake of future generations, perhaps CCAMLR will find the political will to at last protect the Southern Ocean.