Negotiations had been unsuccessful for five long years. But last Friday, 24 nations and the EU finally agreed to create the world’s largest marine reserve off Antarctica. The historical decision reached in Australia is a major victoria for the region’s biodiversity – and the global climate. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.
Around 1.55 million square kilometres – an area roughly four times larger than Germany – has been declared a marine reserve in the Southern Ocean. The decision was reached by delegates from 24 nations and the European Union after two weeks of negotiations in Hobart, Tasmania. The marine reserve will be protected for 35 years.
Negotiations had been unsuccessful for the past five years as China, Russia and the Ukraine – which use the region for fishing – had consistently opposed the plans. The deal came about after Russia was the last country to drop its opposition, making Friday’s agreement a major success for the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).
One of the most pristine ecosystems on Earth
The world’s largest marine reserve is located in Ross Sea off the southern coast of Antarctica, in a region that scientists describe as one of the most pristine ecosystems on Earth. Fishing will be completely banned an area of 1.12 million square kilometres, which covers much of the marine reserve.
The agreement seeks to balance “marine protection, sustainable fishing and science interests,” said New Zealand’s foreign minister Murray McCully. For instance, Russia will continue to be allowed to fish for Antarctic toothfish, but only in regions where fewer young fish will end up in the nets.
Protection for more than 10,000 species
The historic agreement, which will enter into force in December 2017, is a victory for the region’s diverse animal life: more than 10,000 species, including penguins, whales, seabirds, squid, seals and Antarctic krill – a small crustacean that is a major source of food for most other animals – will benefit from the decision.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) celebrated the decision as a “welcome relief for all penguins, whales and seal that call the Ross Sea their home”. In an earlier press release, the conservation organisation had warned that a third of Adélie penguin colonies in Antarctica could disappear by 2060 due to the impacts of climate change on food supply of krill and fish.
In addition, 596 out of 674 glaciers along the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula have retreated since records began in the 1940s, and the Larsen C ice shelf is at risk of breaking off. The establishment of a marine reserve therefore comes at a critical time.
Antarctica is indicator of state of global climate
The marine reserve isn’t needed just to protect the region from overfishing and preserve the enormous biodiversity. Developments in the Antarctica and Southern Ocean are also an indicator for the overall state of the climate and advancing climate change.
In April 2013, scientists from the Australian National University and British Antarctic Survey published the results of a 360-metre deep ice core drilling on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ice core revealed that the coolest temperatures – and therefore the lowest melt – prevailed 600 years ago, with temperatures having risen 1.6 degrees Celsius since then. A dramatic melt was seen in the past 50 years in particular.
The Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on the planet. Around 90 per cent of the world’s ice and 70 per cent of the global freshwater reserves are bound up in the up to 4,500-thick ice cover.
For the moment, Antarctica is a so-called no man’s land. Until 2041 at the earliest – when the Antarctica treaty expires – no country is permitted to lay claim to the continent.