After five years of work led by New Zealand and the United States, the continental shelf and slope of the Ross Sea has at last become a Marine Protected Area (MPA). The MPA came into force on the 1st December 2017 – World Antarctica Day, which marks the anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959.
The new MPA is the world’s second-largest, covering an area of 1.55 million square kilometres of icy water off the continent’s coast, with more than 1.15 million square kilometres becoming a no-fishing zone. But the creation of the area was a hard-fought battle needing the approval of dozens of other nations. After five years of negotiations and debate, the MPA was approved unanimously by members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) – 24 nations and the EU, at the Commission’s annual meeting last year.
The Ross Sea is one of the last remaining stretches of ocean on Earth that has not been harmed by human activities such as overfishing and pollution, with studies showing that the region has the lowest level of disturbance from human activity. This largely pristine sea supports a rich and productive ecosystem and is home to a diverse array of species. Unlike most other ocean areas, it has thriving, intact communities of top predators, as whale, seal and fish populations have yet to be extensively exploited, and as the most productive area in the entire Southern Ocean, many species depend upon it for food. But this natural abundance is unfortunately drawing interest from commercial fishers. As fish stocks elsewhere decline, the Ross Sea is looking increasingly attractive. Without MPA status it is likely that the region will experience the same environmental problems as elsewhere.
The Ross Sea also has the longest history of scientific research in the Southern Ocean, with data stretching back 170 years, and continuous records going back over 50. Designation will ensure that this “living laboratory” remains unchanged and thus ideal for aiding scientific understanding of how marine systems were before large-scale human exploitation.
The Antarctic landmass itself has been protected from exploitation since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, which put the landmass off-limits to military activity and set it aside as a place for peace and scientific exploration. Protection from oil, gas and other mineral extraction came later in 1991 when, as a result of extensive campaigning by Greenpeace, nations agreed an environmental protocol protecting the continent. The surrounding ocean, however, has, until now, received no such protection.
Despite Antarctica’s climate and remoteness, the encircling ocean, with its many unique and fascinating marine species, faces the same problems as seas in regions more habitable to humans. Many species, from krill at the base of the Antarctic ecosystem, to penguins, blue whales, orcas, colossal squids and fur seals are threatened by habitat change, a decline in food availability, overhunting and overfishing. Increasingly, tourists, drawn by the stunning landscapes and wildlife, are posing an increasing risk to the fragile, delicately balanced environment, and plastic pollution is impacting the region. On top of everything the Antarctic Ocean is at the forefront of the first and worst impacts of climate change.
In safeguarding the Ross Sea area from some of the damaging effects of human activity, it is hoped that this MPA will mark the beginning of an ongoing process to protect the biological diversity of the entire region, and that eventually a series of interlinked MPAs will cover all of Antarctica’s waters, safeguarding and conserving the last continent for the future.
Read more about the issues facing the Antarctic Ocean: