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Southern sanctuary

Irene QuaileOctober 28, 2013

The Antarctic is one of earth's last wildernesses, yet its seas are under increasing pressure from commercial activity and climate change. A meeting in Hobart could provide long-term protection for the Southern Ocean.

Pods of killer whales patrol the ice edges in the Ross Sea (Photo: John B. Weller)
Image: John B. Weller, Courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts

Two dozen countries and the European Union are meeting in the Australian city of Hobart to discuss the creation of sanctuaries in the waters around Antarctica under the aegis of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. CCAMLAR is an international organization set up under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty to manage marine living resources in the Southern Ocean.

The parties are considering two proposals relating to different areas of the Antarctic Ocean: the Ross Sea and the East Antarctic. If they reach agreement, it would result in the creation of the world's largest marine protected areas.

Economic interests ahead of conservation?

So far, it has been difficult to find agreement on no-fishing zones for the waters around Antarctica. Conservationists see the waters as one of the world's last pristine ocean areas, rich in biodiversity and in need of protection.

But countries both in the region and as far away as Norway have economic interests in the Southern Ocean as a prime source of fish and other living marine resources. The meeting is the third attempt by CCAMLR to reach an agreement. Numerous countries, including Russia, China and Norway, have reservations about the extent of no-fishing zones, which would severely restrict their commercial activities, while the establishment of marine sanctuaries requires a consensus. A July meeting of CCALMR in the German coastal town of Bremerhaven failed to reach agreement, missing what German Minister Ilse Aigner at the time described as a "unique chance to make history." The proposals on the table would have created marine reserves covering an area as large as the whole of the European Union.

A fishing boat surrounded by birds (Photo: Marion Hütter)
Fishing is an important economic factorImage: Marion Hütter

Environmentalists pool resources

The Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA), a coalition of environmental groups that aims to "protect the wild south," stresses the need for the long-term protection of Antarctic waters, which are home to more than 10,000 species, including penguins, whales, squid and numerous seabirds, many of them unique to the region. The seas are also rich in krill, the tiny shrimp-like creatures eaten by whales, penguins, seals and birds. These days, krill is also used as feed for salmon in fish farms, and it's already overfished in some Antarctic areas.

Brightly colored coralline bryozoans and sponges are seen in Antarctic waters (Photo: Martin Riddle)
There is no shortage of life in the cold southern watersImage: AP

Alain Hubert, director of the Brussels-based International Polar Foundation, which hosted a meeting of the Antarctic Treaty partners earlier this year, told DW he saw this as one of the signs of increasing pressure for the commercial exploitation of the Antarctic. It was only a matter of time - and money - before the region is taken advantage of, he said.

Hubert stressed the need for international agreement to protect the Antarctic. "At a time when the global population is growing and we are wondering how we are all going to be able to live together on this planet, the Antarctic is an important symbol," he said."

Russiaand Ukraine have questioned the commission's rights to establish no-take zones or fishing restrictions in the Antarctic region. After the failed Bremerhaven meeting, the USA and New Zealand proposed reducing the planned area in the Ross Sea by 40 percent as a compromise.

A penguin colony of about 1,000 individuals in Antarctica
Penguins are at home in the AntarcticImage: International Polar Foundation

Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' Southern Ocean sanctuaries project, a member of the AOA, appealed to the countries participating in the current meeting to take action: "After investing significant resources over the past year studying and vetting those protections, it is time to act," she told journalists at the start of the meeting. "These are some of our last intact marine areas, and they deserve meaningful, permanent protection."

Thilo Maack from Greenpeace Germany, a member of the AOA delegation in Hobart, told DW: "The time to designate these marine reserves is now. Otherwise the effects of climate change will outpace the speed at which CCAMLR is able to protect the unique Antarctic ecosystem."

The meeting runs until November 1.