Antarctica’s Southern Ocean has been exploited for its teeming bounty, from the top of its food chain to the bottom, for more than 200 years. Seal hunters arrived there in the late 1700s and by 1825 fur seals were nearing extinction. Hunters then turned to other seal species, and to penguins, to extract oil from their body fat. Whaling arrived at the turn of the 20th century, with the hunting pressure driving some species from Antarctic waters.
Even krill, the tiny shrimplike creatures that are a key source of food to whales, penguins, seals and seabirds, are being scooped up in hundreds of thousands of tons per year. Now that the continent is undergoing tremendous disruption from the warming climate, strong multilateral action is imperative to protect it and its surrounding seas.
This week, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, comprising 24 nations and the European Union, is meeting in Hobart, Australia, to consider proposals to protect three areas off Antarctica’s coast totaling 1.2 million square miles. Plans for marine reserves off East Antarctica, which offer critical habitat to emperor and Adélie penguins, and in the Weddell Sea, which would shelter whales and penguins, have been on the table for several years, blocked so far by Russia and China. Both of those areas also harbor cold-water corals, glass sponges and other creatures found nowhere else on earth.
Now, a new proposal is up for consideration to establish a marine sanctuary surrounding the Antarctic Peninsula. Antarctica is one of the fastest-warming places on the planet and the Peninsula region is facing multiple pressures, including climate change variability, an increase in tourism as well as intense fishing for krill, which has led to starvation among some populations of penguins.