Proposals will go before a commission next month to help protect thousands of species in Antarctic waters
An extraordinarily big thing might happen in the world of marine conservation next month at a meeting in Germany of a little known international commission.
And while you probably haven't read much about it, the outcome could see the creation of the two largest areas of protected ocean on the planet that would lock out fishing from more than 1.5 million square kilometres of ocean around the Antarctic.
The areas in question – the Ross Sea and coastal areas in East Antarctica – are almost untouched by the often-clumsy hands of human progress and give a home to thousands of marine species.
Across the two areas are about a million pairs of Adélie penguins, more than a dozen species of whale, more than a third of the world's population of emperor penguins, abundant krill and fish species and the Ross Sea region's top predator – the toothfish, which can grow to two metres weighing 200 kilos (they've evolved special anti-freeze like proteins to survive in the frigid waters). Not to forget a colossal squid species that grows to 14 metres long "with eyes the size of dinner plates".
The setting is a special meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) – a group with a voting membership of 24 countries plus the European Union.
Among the members are Australia, New Zealand, US, UK, Russia, China, Norway and France. Most have interests in the region through fishing or scientific research – or both.
When I say a "special meeting" it really is. This is only the second ever such gathering called by the group – the last one was in 1986. On the agenda from 11 to 17 July are two proposals to create what's called Marine Protected Areas (MPA) within which are allowed varying degrees of activity, from fishing and tourism under restrictions to areas known as "no take" zones.
One proposal comes from Australia, France and the European Union that would create seven MPAs in East Antarctica covering 1.63 million square kilometres.
The US and New Zealand have another proposal to create a single MPA in the Ross Sea of about 2.3 million square kilometres including a "no take" area of 1.6 million square kilometres (for comparison, the UK is 245,000 square kilometres, Texas 696,000 and Queensland and Alaska are both about 1.7 million).
To put these proposals into an ocean context, currently the largest single protected marine area on the planet was declared by Australia last year in the Coral Sea – east of the Great Barrier Reef - covering one million square kilometres.
CCAMLR was formed back in 1982 over concerns at unregulated fishing of krill – the small shrimp-like species that provides the backbone to the Antarctic's food web.
The group already exercises powers to restrict activities in the region, such as setting catch limits for certain species (such as the toothfish) and regulating the type of fishing methods and nets used.
CCAMLR is also a group that only passes "conservation measures" on consensus, which means if one member is against a proposal then the whole thing falls over. There may need to be compromises if either of the plans are to be put in force.
Steve Campbell, who will be at the meeting, is the campaign director at the Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a group bringing together more than 30 conservation groups including WWF, Greenpeace, Pew, Natural Resources Defense Council, International Fund for Animal Welfare and Humane Society International.
He says "success is not assured" and that there will be a tough set of negotiations at the July meeting.
The main sticking points are likely to be the size of the areas, and how long they are established for. The Alliance believes that marine protection should be permanent and at a large scale.
This is one of the last great ocean wildernesses not completely altered my humanity, and should be protected anyway. The key threats are impacts from climate change including changes in temperature, sea ice, acidification, as well as the potential for increasing commercial fishing as fisheries in other parts of the world become over-exploited.
According to the latest UN Food and Agriculture statistics, almost 30 per cent of global fish stocks are overexploited, and around 57 per cent are fully exploited and only about 13 per cent are not fully exploited. The Southern Ocean contains some of the most intact marine ecosystems on the planet and should be protected.
While Australia obviously supports its own proposal in East Antarctica, its Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr said in March that Australia also supported the Ross Sea plan and he strongly encouraged other commission members to back it.
Australia says that as well as protecting the marine life and habitats in East Antarctica, its own proposal will also create "reference points" for studying the impacts of climate change.
The Antarctic ice sheet covering the continent's bedrock represents about 60 per cent of the world's fresh water. Understanding the behavior of ice shelves, which stretch out from the ice sheets like gigantic tongues over the water beneath, is key to understanding how ice sheets will behave in a warming world.
In turn, this helps scientists to estimate the contribution of melting ice sheets to rising sea levels.
A new study just published in the journal Science has calculate that ice shelves in the Antarctic are melting from beneath, losing 1.3 trillion kilograms of ice a year. Another one trillion kilograms of ice is lost when chunks break off to form icebergs.
One of the study's authors Eric Rignot, of NASA, says that "in a number of places around Antarctica, ice shelves are melting too fast, and a consequence of that is glaciers and the entire continent are changing as well."
Restricting fishing and protecting habitats in Antarctica is well within the reach of CCAMLR, even without these MPAs. Preventing the "untouched" continent from the far longer arm of human-caused climate change is another prospect entirely.
[Adélie penguin via Flickr user ksuyin]