Antarctica Ocean Sanctuary – ‘Not this year’

A report from Sally Campbell on the latest developments concerning the Antartica Ocean Sanctuary

A plan to turn a huge tract of pristine Antarctic ocean into the world’s biggest sanctuary has been rejected, throwing the future of one of the Earth’s most important ecosystems into doubt. The 1.8m sq km reserve – five times the size of Germany – would have banned all fishing in a vast area of the Weddell Sea and parts of the Antarctic peninsula, safeguarding species including penguins, killer whales, leopard seals and blue whales. Experts said it would also have played a key role in tackling climate change, as the seas around the Antarctic soak up huge amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But following days of talks in October in Hobart in Tasmania, the Antarctic Ocean Commission (CCAMLR) rejected the plan, which needed unanimous agreement to pass. Environmental groups said Russia, China and Norway had played a part in blocking the proposal, with the other 22 members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the organisation set up to protect Antarctic waters, backing the proposal.

The decision on whether to establish an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary with proposals to establish three new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) – in East Antarctica, in the Weddell Sea, and in the Western Antarctic Peninsula was rejected but this is not the end! It means that these MPAs will again be considered at next year’s October meeting in Hobart. So we must all renew our efforts to influence members of CCAMLR, especially Norway our near neighbour. I thought they cared more for their international reputation as a “Green” Nation than expanding their fisheries.

Greenpeace was involved in raising huge support for the proposal with 355,655 people having signed their UK petition. Their lobbying will continue and it is important we give them support. Environmental groups around the world, which had mobilised 2 million people in support of the plan, reacted with dismay. “This was an historic opportunity to create the largest protected area on earth in the Antarctic: safeguarding wildlife, tackling climate change and improving the health of our global oceans,” said Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic campaign. “Twenty-two delegations came here to negotiate in good faith but, instead, serious scientific proposals for urgent marine protection were derailed by interventions which barely engaged with the science.” She said that rather than put forward “reasoned opposition on scientific grounds, some delegations, like China and Russia, instead deployed delaying tactics such as wrecking amendments and filibustering, which meant there was barely any time left for real discussion about protecting Antarctic waters.”

The UK government backed the plan, with a Foreign Office delegation present for the talks in Hobart, Tasmania. “It is not in our gift to do this unilaterally. It is subject to an international treaty which requires wider agreement with other countries. At CCAMLR, these proposals were rejected due to objections from others.” He said the British government would continue to press for the creation of ocean sanctuaries in the Antarctic in the years ahead.

Greenpeace said CCAMLR had failed in its remit to protect the Antarctic waters. Bengtsson said: “We’re running out of time and scientists are clear that we need to create marine sanctuaries across at least 30% of our oceans by 2030, to protect wildlife, ensure food security for billions and help to tackle climate change.” She said that although the scientific evidence was clear, “diplomatic efforts seem to be more concerned with expanding fisheries than with conservation”. It means it is more urgent than ever for the public to join the fight and put pressure on politicians to save the oceans before it was too late, adding: “If bodies like the Antarctic Ocean Commission continue to fail in their mandate to conserve the ocean, they’re clearly unfit for purpose and aren’t part of the solution. Instead we must look to the historic negotiations taking place at the UN towards a Global Ocean Treaty.”

Whilst geopolitical machination re. China and Russia continue, it is appalling that Norway, proud to shout about its environmental credentials opposed the Sanctuary. Self-interest? Krill fisheries? Salmon aquaculture? Nutraceuticals (such as omega-3)? Not good enough Norway!

So what is CCAMLR?
• The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources
• Established by an international treaty in 1982
• Its objective is the conservation of Antarctic marine life while providing for rational use
• 25 Members and a further 11 countries have signed the Convention
• The Secretariat (international Headquarters) is at 181 Macquarie Street, Hobart, Australia
• A five-minute video outlining the work of CCAMLR, is available here.

Sally Campbell November 2018