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The future of the Antarctic hangs in the balance. Twenty-four countries and the European Union are meeting in Hobart, Australia, this week to vote on a proposal to extend ocean protections around the South Pole. Following several failed attempts, there are weighty geopolitical interests at stake.
The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), an international organisation that regulates the use of resources in the Antarctic, agreed in 2002 to create a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) – in line with the recommendation of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030 made by global scientist, environmentalists and civil society.
“The Antarctic is the last frontier where exploitation of natural resources on an industrial scale hasn’t arrived yet,” said Milko Schvartzman, Argentine marine conservation specialist. Argentina is one of seven nations to maintain a territorial claim on the Antarctic Peninsula. It also has the most bases and personnel stationed there.
“It’s one of the few places in the world that hasn’t been affected by human activity and because of that it is essential for scientific research,” added Schvartzman.
Nevertheless, progress has been slow so far. In 2009, CCAMLR member states agreed on the first marine protected area, covering 94,000 square kilometres south of the South Orkney Islands. Then, in 2016, the Commission made headlines when it successfully negotiated the world’s largest marine park, covering 1.55 million square kilometres in the Ross Sea.
These achievements raised hopes for similar breakthroughs during the following annual meetings, which seek to expand the current MPAs and create new ones. But discussions have dragged on. Countries have opposed the extension of MPAs, asserting their right to access waters rich in krill and other resources such as minerals and oil.
If created, it would be the largest natural reserve anywhere in the world.
There are three proposals on the table at this year’s talks. Each one is distinct and with different hopes of advancing.
The oldest proposal is to protect three large blocks of ocean and seafloor along the East Antarctic, in an area rich in cold-water corals and penguin foraging grounds. It has been discussed for six years in a row at the CCAMLR talks, but without significant progress.
Over the years, the proposal has been scaled back. Initially, it proposed seven areas covering 1.9 million square kilometres of ocean; this has been reduced to three areas covering 1 million square kilometres. It will protect unique ecosystems and features, including sites where Antarctic bottom water is formed (this is the coldest water in the ocean which has considerable influence over how currents move).
The second proposal (now under discussion by the scientific committee – the stage before it reaches the commission), is to create an MPA of 1.8 million square kilometres in the area of the Weddell Sea and adjacent to the Antarctic Peninsula. If created, it would be the largest natural reserve anywhere in the world.
The Weddell MPA was originally put forward by the EU and has since gained the support of several countries. Greenpeace launched a campaign to pressure governments to approve it that was supported by two million people. It’s hoped the proposal will reach the commission this year, where its approval will be discussed.
“This would create a safe haven for penguins, whales and krill, safeguarding their environment,” said Louisa Casson, senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace. “The Weddell Sea is one of the most pristine places of the planet. We have a chance to protect it before any damage is done.”
Finally, Argentina and Chile have worked jointly on a proposal to create an MPA to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula. It’s at an early stage and will be submitted to the scientific committee at this year’s meeting. The area is particularly vulnerable to tourism impacts, fishing activity and global warming.
“It’s the area of the Antarctic and the world most affected by global warming. There has been a massive decrease in the amount of ice. It’s the centre of krill fishing in the Antarctic,” said Rodolfo Werner, senior adviser at the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), who has been attending CCAMLR meetings for over ten years.
Marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean
What is at stake?
A failure to extend MPAs in the Antarctic could have severe consequences for its ecosystems, experts agree, especially considering that after 2048 the environmental protocol currently in place that bans mining (the Antarctic Treaty) is expected to come up for review.
Geologists estimate that Antarctica holds at least 36 billion barrels of oil and natural gas, although assessments vary widely. A combination of climate change and industrial-scale fishing is already threatening the krill population in Antarctic waters. The penguin population could drop by almost a third by the end of the century due to changes in krill, whose size could reduce up to 40 percent.
Krill populations have already declined by 80% since the 1970s, thanks to an expansion of the krill fishing industry – predicted to grow 12% a year over the next three years.
At the same time, an upward trend in tourism has been registered in the Antarctic since 2011, with 41.966 people arriving in the 2017-2018 period – a 16 percent growth compared to the last period, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). All putting huge pressure on the biodiversity in the area.
There is a mixed feeling among experts asked by chinadialogue. Some are hopeful of new protections being passed, while others are more negative.
For Mike Walker, Europe coordinator at ASOC, who worked on the Ross Sea campaign, this year’s meeting “is in a better position” than last year, thanks to diplomatic efforts carried out in the build up.
Meanwhile, for Mariano Aguas, head of the Antarctic programme at the Argentine NGO Vida Silvestre, there “won’t be much progress” due to differing trenchant positions held by countries.
“CCAMLR risks its reputation if they fail to move forward on anything this year,” said Andrea Kavanagh, director of Pew’s Antarctic and Southern Ocean work. “They promised to have a network of MPAs to preserve biodiversity in the area. If they can’t do that it puts into question what their priorities are.”
Under CCAMLR rules, all 25 commission members — 24 countries and the European Union — must agree for a proposal to be adopted. The need for a universal consensus has made progress especially challenging, given the differing interests of the negotiating countries.
It boils down to a debate between mainly Western countries that seek to establish “no-take” MPAs (where fishing, mining, drilling and other extractive industries are banned), and countries that wish to maintain rights to fishing and other forms of extraction, such as China and Russia, according to Dr Nengye Liu, Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide.
“The debate is between fishing and conservation states. There has been a shift among developed countries that are pushing for no activity in the MPAs. This has not happened yet in China, which has become the world’s largest marine fisheries producer over the last decade,” he said.
“China is moving towards sustainable fishing, which means they want to continue fishing in the future,” added the professor.
China started fishing for Antarctic krill in 2009 and has rapidly expanded its activities. Alongside Norway and South Korea, they are among the biggest Antarctic krill fishing nations, with Norway leading in terms of catch and processing capacity, and China in the number of vessels.
In 2017, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan for fishing industry technology called for the country to increase its krill fishing and processing capacity. But a white paper on China’s activity in the Antarctic, published the same year by the State Oceanic Administration, included environmental protection as a key principle.
“China does not object to MPAs, but they want to have more time to think about it,” Jiliang Chen, researcher at Greenovation Hub and specialist on China’s Antarctic policy, said.
“There is a general agreement that a network has to be established but fishing countries (such as China) have more concerns.”
A study by Greenpeace analysed the movements of krill fishing vessels in the region and found they were increasingly operating “in the immediate vicinity of penguin colonies and whale feeding grounds”. It also highlighted the large number of incidents of fishing boats being involved in groundings, oil spills and accidents.
Acknowledging their role, a group of companies responsible for 85% of krill fishing in Antarctic waters announced a “voluntarily permanent stop” to their operations in key areas, including “buffer zones” around penguin breeding grounds. The move had put pressure on governments to act faster on MPA.
Antarctic marine reserves offer a rare opportunity to conserve and study largely untouched natural areas, experts agree. Although MPA status does little to ward off the effects of climate change, it can help ensure the other activities don’t exacerbate the impacts.
At the same time, Antarctic marine parks are part of a larger international effort to protect 10% of the world’s oceans in MPAs by 2020 – a challenging target considering less than 4% is protected.
“Looking back, much progress has been made. It’s taking a long time but that’s the way it works,” Kavanagh said.
“Countries that only cared about fishing are now making commitments. Russia has done great work on protected areas in the Arctic. China is really concerned about climate change. There’s every reason to have hope and be positive.