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The Antarctic Ocean Is in Climate Crisis. This Week, the World Could Take a Big Step Towards Protecting Its Future

6 minute read

Sixty years ago a dozen nations, including arch-rivals the United States and the Soviet Union, agreed to preserve the Antarctic continent as a place of peace, research and conservation. Commercial exploitation of its resources and its animals was forbidden. Yet much of the ocean that surrounds the territory does not have the same protections.

This will be up for discussion during a virtual meeting of the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) from 22-30 October. The Convention is meeting to discuss the region’s future and will decide whether or not it’s time to give some of the most biodiverse seas around Antarctica the same defenses as the land itself.

The timing couldn’t be more vital. The combined threats of global climate change and industrial fishing are weakening the crucial ecosystems that lie within its waters. Record high temperatures are breaking up ice sheets that have lasted millennia. On Feb. 6, a weather station on the Antarctic Peninsula—the 1,500 km long finger of land that reaches towards South America—reported a record temperature high of 18.3°C. While members of a nearby scientific expedition researching penguin populations relished in the balmy weather, stripping down to t-shirts and bare chests, it was an ominous sign for a species better adapted to ice. Just a few days earlier the penguin researchers were reporting a 77% decline in some colonies.

The peninsula isn’t just one of the fastest warming places on earth. It’s also home to some of the most exquisitely specialized species on the planet. Among them is Antarctic krill—the tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that collectively form the largest biomass on the planet and are the cornerstone of the global ocean food chain. Yet the encroachment of industrial fisheries into these waters is threatening their health, as well as the penguins, seals and whales that are sustained by them.

Read More: Why This Year Is Our Last, Best Chance for Saving the Oceans

CCAMLR was established in 1982 with a mandate to protect Antarctic marine life through sustainable fisheries. It governs by consensus, and regulates fishing through quotas. The current quota for krill across the entire fishing fleet is limited to less than .5% of the known biomass. That may not sound like much, but it can still have an outsize impact depending on where the krill is harvested, says Rodolfo Werner, an Argentina-based marine biologist who is currently advising the Pew Charitable Trust’s Antarctic Krill Conservation Project.

“The question is not how much krill you catch, but when you catch it and where,” Werner says. Over the past decade, he says, the fishing fleets have been moving closer to areas around the Antarctic Peninsula that are used by penguins to forage during the breeding season. Seals and whales also compete for krill along those coasts, leading to even greater uncertainty about how much, exactly, is there. “It’s hard enough trying to determine how much krill we can allow the fisheries to take,” he says by phone. “When you throw in climate change and sea ice reduction, it gets even more complicated.”

Rather than work by quotas, he says, a better solution would be to limit fishing access entirely in vital areas. And he is not the only one. The European Union, along with most other CCAMLR members, is calling for the entire Antarctic Peninsula —the northernmost tip of the sprawling continent— to be set aside as a Marine Protected Area (MPA), meaning that the area will be off limits for all kinds of commercial exploitation. The call is part of a global drive to set aside a full 30% of the oceans as conservation areas, where fish stocks and marine animals can recover from decades of overfishing, and go on to repopulate the rest of the ocean. Marine conservationist Cristina Mittermeier calls them “fish banks,” that grow with compound interest over time.

In 2011 CCAMLR committed to establish a network of nine large-scale marine protected areas around Antarctica. A decade later, only two have been implemented, including one at the Ross Sea that is twice the area of Texas and the largest such region in the world. This year the organization will consider a proposal by Argentina and Chile to create an MPA to protect a large section of the Antarctic Peninsula region, along with one for East Antarctica and another for the Weddell Sea.

The problem is that up until now, CCAMLR members Russia and China have blocked the proposals. Both countries are intent on expanding their regional fishing operations, and while MPAs won’t affect their quota, “China doesn’t want any restriction on access to resources anywhere,” says Werner, who has served on CCAMLR’s scientific committee for the past 17 years. “Setting up an MPA in Antarctica sets a precedent that could be replicated elsewhere on the high seas, and they see that as a threat to their sovereignty.”

What happens on this remote continent will reverberate around the world, says Andrea Kavanagh, project director for the Pew Charitable Trust’s Protecting Antarctica’s Southern Ocean campaign. An MPA on its own can’t stop the impact of warming seas or plastic pollution, but by offering marine life respite from fishing pressures, it helps build resilience.

“Designating the Antarctic Peninsula MPA would create a climate refuge for krill and penguins and could permanently protect the region’s unique marine ecosystem,” says Kavanagh. Not only that, it can help mitigate the effects of climate change. When krill feed on phytoplankton, their carbon-rich waste sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where it stays for thousands of years. Scientists estimate that they sequester some 23 million tons of carbon emissions each year, equivalent to the output of six coal-fired power plants.

Together, the East Antarctica, Antarctic Peninsula, and Weddell Sea MPAs would protect close to 1% of the ocean globally by covering approximately four million square kilometers. “Establishing this network of MPAs could be the single greatest act of ocean conservation in humankind, making this the greatest sanctuary on earth,” says Mittermeier, whose organization SeaLegacy.Org is leading a petition campaign in support of the MPAs. “If we can’t protect the most wild place on the planet, how can we protect ourselves?”

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