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marine protected areas

Why is the new Antarctic marine sanctuary such a big deal?

From the Antarctic conservation meeting, Mike Walker of the Antarctic Ocean Alliance explains why an agreement to create the first marine protected area in international waters is a game changer for species protection.

On Friday (28.10.), 24 countries including Russia, China, the United States, and members of the European Union agreed to create the world's largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea. Located in the Antarctic, the reserve will be twice the size of Texas. The proposal to make it a protected area was made by the US and New Zealand - the closest country to the sea.

The new status means that no fishing activity will be allowed in the 1.6 million square kilometer (620,000 square mile) zone - Russian vessels had for example been catching Antarctic toothfish in the area, but would no longer be allowed to do so.

The breakthrough took place at the annual meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, Australia. DW spoke with Mike Walker, project director at the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, who is on the scene in Hobart.

Deutsche Welle: Everyone seems very excited about this deal, why is it so important?

Mike Walker: Today's decision is historic, it's the first time countries have come together to create a protected marine area outside of any country's jurisdiction. The majority of the planet is covered in ocean - the planet is blue. And 70 percent of ocean is high sea outside of national jurisdictions. So this is a big deal.

Why is this first agreement happening in this area of the world?

Watch video 01:04

World's largest marine reserve created in Antarctica

Antarctica is the only landmass on Earth that hasn't got ownership, because the Soviet Union and United States agreed in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, to preserve the landmass of Antarctica for humanity, and for science. Today, we finish that work. The species and animals that people know - penguins, killer whales, seals - they don't live off the land, they live off the ocean.

What is significant about the location of this sea?

The sea is within the Southern Ocean, which is a largely intact marine ecosystem. It hasn't suffered the same degradation from humans as the rest of the ocean. It's quite possibly the healthiest ecosystem on the planet. And the influence of the Southern Ocean acts as a heart for the ocean globally, it pumps nutrients and fuels currents which sustain the rest of the ocean.

Why was this so important for New Zealand?

The Ross Sea is closest to Australia and New Zealand, but the Southern Ocean in general is covered by an agreement through the CCAMLR. The commission made a commitment in 2009 to preserve and protect the Antarctic area. In doing that, they divided the Southern Ocean up into nine domains. The idea was different countries would take responsibility for protecting that domain. This domain falls to New Zealand.

What were the roadblocks to reaching this agreement?

Two years ago, in October 2014, there were two countries blocking this decision: China and Russia. In the last 24 hours of the [previous] meeting last October, China suddenly agreed to it. Part of their conditions involved increasing the size. So in the last year it was just Russia objecting - and any one country can block the proposal.

In the last 12 months, there have been significant negotiations and engagement with Russia, in large part by the US Secretary of State John Kerry, who's had numerous conversations about this with his counterpart Sergey Lavrov and even with Vladimir Putin.

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What made Russia relent?

That's a question only Russia can answer. But we do know that they are committed to Antarctic protection. Russia itself has its own commitment to the environment and to the ocean. Earlier this year, Putin designated 2017 the year of ecology. On the same day, Barack Obama enlarged a marine protected area in Hawaii - and that was the largest marine protected area until today. Russia has also significantly enlarged their protected area in the Arctic, Franz Josef Land.

So the Antarctic overtook Hawaii as the largest marine reserve. Will we soon get a new protected area that is even bigger?

I certainly hope so. That's the pattern, every couple of months frankly at this stage you have an announcement, and suddenly you have the new biggest zone! But the reason that today earns the description as historic is that this will always be the first day that countries agreed to create a large marine protected area in the high seas. The fact that it's the largest is something that I hope will be temporary, but the fact that it is first will never be changed.

Which Antarctic sea might be the next to get protection?

There is another proposal for an area in the East Antarctic, made by France and Australia in 2011. We hope for a decision on that next year. The most recent proposal for a new area was by Germany, for the Weddell Sea. We hope we're going to see significant progress on that in the next 12 months. 

Mike Walker is project director at the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, as well as a campaigner for marine protection in Europe.

This interview was conducted by Dave Keating.

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