Small steps made, but Antarctic conservation body falls short on action to tackle giant problems
HOBART, Australia, 27TH November 2023. Following two weeks of intense discussions in Hobart, Australia, the international body responsible for safeguarding Antarctica’s marine life (the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources- CCAMLR), finished its annual meeting with just modest progress on promoting a regional network of marine protected areas (MPAs) and agreement to hold a meeting to improve fisheries management for krill, a small creature that is the lynchpin of the Antarctic ecosystem, in line with proposed protection of key areas. However, conservation organisations are still sounding the alarm bells that the level of progress made this year pales in comparison to the challenges facing the region.
These past months have been extreme for Antarctica with record breaking global temperatures, news of the unavoidable collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf, as well as millions of Antarctic animal lives threatened by the resurgence of avian flu in the region in recent days.
“It feels like we are taking one step forward and two steps back on Antarctic marine protection. While there is some consolation that key conservation measures have not been rolled back, CCAMLR’s continual treading of water and holding onto the status quo falls short of the ambitious responses needed to address the climate and biodiversity crises.” said Claire Christian, Executive Director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.
On the positive side, CCAMLR agreed to renew CM 51-07, which distributes the annual krill catch into four different areas around the Antarctic Peninsula, while the Scientific Committee worked to increase effective management of the rapidly warming region by committing to hold a symposium in July 2024 that will focus on establishing anMPA around the western Antarctic Peninsula and implementation of an updated ecosystem-based krill fishery management approach.
“With the agreement to couple the designation of the MPA in the Antarctic Peninsula with updated krill fishery management, members will ensure that all of the critical services krill provide to the planet, including carbon sequestration, remain intact, and that krill remain at a healthy population level so that predators can too. What’s disappointing is the lack of action to establish the network of MPAs that CCAMLR committed to in 2011. CCAMLR has delayed MPA designations for seven years. It is clear that members are requiring less science to keep fisheries open than they are to secure protections that are badly needed to protect this spectacular region and the animals that call it home” said Andrea Kavanagh, Director of Antarctic and Southern Ocean conservation work for The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.
“The record low levels of sea-ice this year and catastrophic breeding failure of emperor penguins is an alarm bell for CCAMLR to take action. We welcome the agreement by all CCAMLR members this year to make progress towards establishing the Antarctic Peninsula MPA, as well as strengthening krill fishing regulations. It’s clear that 2024 will be a critical year for CCAMLR to deliver concrete outcomes and honour their commitment to establish a network of MPAs around Antarctica, with significant no-fishing areas.” said Emily Grilly, Antarctic Conservation Manager for WWF.
Another positive element at the conclusion of the meeting was the introduction of a new large-scale proposal to add a further 720,000 km2 of protection to the existing Weddell Sea MPA proposal (Weddell Sea Phase 2) was introduced by Norway, with the agreement to the meeting to move ahead with developing the proposal further. Together with the East Antarctic and Antarctic Peninsula MPA proposals that have yet to be designated due to the stalling by a couple of member countries, this would protect more than 4.5 million km2 of ocean in Antarctica, an area greater than the whole of the European Union combined.
However, there was once again push-back on concrete measures to protect vulnerable features such as the world’s largest known nesting ground of icefish, containing roughly 60 million icefishs, that was discovered last year by German scientists.
“Short-term, short-sighted fisheries interests keep on trumping long-term conservation needs. If we aren’t even able to protect key fish breeding grounds, which aligns with both the international goals to protect at least 30% of the ocean by 2030 as well as the growth of new fish populations, an aspect of interest to the fishing industry, then we’re not only endangering Antarctic ecosystems but also common sense.” said Jehki Härkönen, ocean policy advisor at Greenpeace International.
“Consensus-building on increasing protection within CCAMLR is proving too slow and we really need to take these negotiations to the highest diplomatic level.” said Claire Christian. In just under two weeks France will host the one Planet Polar Summit bringing together experts and high-level leaders to agree joint actions to protect the planet’s precious ice regions. “I really hope this Summit kicks off an era of accelerated conservation action that outpaces the melting of Antarctic ice,” concluded Christian.
Notes to editor
- Sea ice is at its record low this year again, a new study shows that Antarctica has lost 40% of its ice shelves since 1997 (source)
- Avian influenza has caused 20,000 deaths of sea lions in Peru and Chile since last October (source)
- The “factory fishing” of krill has soared, from 104,728 metric tons in 2007 to 415,508 metric tons in 2022, as larger, more sophisticated vessels have joined the chase (source). Krill are important for a healthy climate though – every year, krill remove as much as 23 megatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to new research published by the World Wildlife Fund. That’s the equivalent of taking off the road 5 million cars every year. (source)
- About Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean
ASOC: The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) is a coalition of conservation organizations from around the world that defends the integrity of Antarctic and Southern Ocean ecosystems from encroaching human activities. Its mission is to protect the Antarctic and Southern Ocean’s unique and vulnerable ecosystems by providing the unified voice of the NGO community.
CCAMLR: The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Resources (CCAMLR) was established under the Antarctic Treaty System to preserve the biodiversity of the Southern Ocean. CCAMLR is a consensus-based organization consisting of 27 Members, including the EU and eight of its Member States. CCAMLR’s mandate includes fisheries management based on the ecosystem approach, the protection of Antarctic nature and the creation of vast marine protected areas allowing the ocean to increase the resilience to climate change. In 2009, CCAMLR member countries began to undertake their responsibilities to establish a network of MPAs throughout the Southern Ocean and established the first high seas MPA on the southern shelf of the South Orkney Islands. In 2016 the world’s largest MPA was agreed in the Ross Sea (proposed by the United States & New Zealand; 2.02 million km2).
Currently, there are three proposals for the creation of new MPAs in the Southern Ocean. Two proposed by the EU and its member states, together with Australia, Norway, Uruguay, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, India, South Korea and Ukraine: East Antarctic with 0.95 million km2, the Weddell Sea – 2.18 million km2; The Antarctic Peninsula: from Argentina and Chile- about 0.65 million km2.
The protection of these three large areas would safeguard nearly 4 million km2 of Antarctica’s ocean. That is roughly the size of the EU and represents 1% of the global ocean. Together this would secure the largest act of ocean protection in history.