Some of the 250 international scientists gathered in Auckland for a world conference on conservation biology, have just spent three days at sessions of a marine conservation think tank, where the questions they tackled included proposals for protecting biodiversity in the so-called “last ocean”, New Zealand’s Ross Sea.
“There’s a marine protected area (MPA) proposed for the Ross Sea, that New Zealand is leading at the moment, and there is a need to do a whole lot more work before we take the final proposal for the MPA to the international body that looks after fishing,” Antarctica New Zealand’s science manager, Ed Butler, told journalists at a briefing held by the SMC.
The scientists at the inaugural global Marine Conservation Think Tank were developing a priority list of actions for marine conservation efforts, particularly in the southern hemisphere, and Dr Butler spoke on a workshop which probed implications of environmental change to Antarctic eco-systems.
The Ross Sea 3000 km south of NZ — some of it covered by the world’s largest chunk of floating ice, nearly twice the size of New Zealand at 450,000 square km — played a key role, he said.
“This area is one of the most productive oceans in the world, because of the ocean chemistry and because of what happens in Antarctica in winter and early in the summer.
“The oceans around Antarctica and particularly in the Ross Sea, absorbs huge amounts of CO2 and (leading American oceanographer) Sylvia Earle has described it as the ‘lungs of the planet’.”
Dr Butler said the Ross Sea was a pristine region and the last natural labouratory left for scientists to study how ecosystems worked in their natural state.
“It’s really important that we try to understand that ecosystem and try and protect it as best we can”.
“We don’t understand the ecosystems well enough to know what will happen if we get less sea-ice in the Ross Sea region — sea ice drives the primary productivity through the sea-ice algae — we’re talking about millions of square kilometres of algae feeding the ecosystem”.
“We just don’t have enough data to figure out what might be the impacts int he Ross Sea region, but we are already seeing some of these things playing out in the rest of Antarctica”.
But the Antarctic environment was altering rapidly, and the Antarctic Peninsula was the fastest-warming area of the planet, with big changes in sea-ice, while changes appeared slower in the Ross Sea.
Basic longterm data on the Antarctic marine environment was lacking, which made it hard to benchmark change in the ecosystems.
Asked what New Zealand had done to prepare for a UN-recognised MPA for the Ross Sea, and whether policy makers were more focussed on just protecting some biodiversity hotspots such as the Balleny Islands, Dr Butler said NZ had collected as much data as it could to create a good picture of the regional biology of the Ross Sea.
“The idea was to protect those values that we thought were really important,” he told the SMC.
“The MPA that is being proposed does do that – it protects almost 100 percent of the different bioregions that scientists thought were important.
Recent news reports have said that New Zealand was preparing to to veto any attempt to protect the whole Ross Sea – part of its Ross Dependency — because of the economic importance of the toothfish catch there, but Dr Butler said that fisheries and Foreign Affairs officials were still working on the issues involved.
“In terms of what goes up to the (Hobart-based) Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources there are likely to be changes before we put the final MPA,” he said.
“I don’t think it is fair to say that we are only interested in protecting biodiversity hot-spots — I think the MPA is a sensisble trade-off between conservation and trying to get something that other nations will buy into.
“Marnine protecte areas in Antarctica are very complicated beasts, because there are 25 nations that sit at the table and you need consensus to do anything — if one nation doesn’t like what you’re proposing … you have to go back to the drawing board.
“We are working with other nations to try to work out a way forward so that we don’t put something up that gets kicked for touch right away”.
Earlier in the briefing, a leading ecologist Professor Hugh Possingham, of the University of Queensland, spoke about Australia’s own marine reserves, and said there had been “significant progress”, with the Great Barrier Reef as the”gold standard”.
But subsequent planning for marine protected areas on other parts of Australia’s coast had not been as good, with a tendency for only small parts of the continental shelf not wanted by other interests such as petroleum explorers, miners or fishers to be included in reserves.
He also suggested New Zealand had lost its leadership role in marine protected areas.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, New Zealand was considered to lead the world in marine protected areas — there were a lot of reserves, there was a lot of discussion,” said Professor Possingham. “There was outstanding marine science, and yet and yet clearly , in the mainland New Zealand waters, very little has happened in the last few years, and other countries have pushed ahead,” he said.
On Australia’s own marine reserves, Prof Possingham, said there had been”significant progress”, with the Great Barrier Reef as the “gold standard”. But subsequent planning for marine protected areas on other parts of Australia’s coast had not been as good, with a tendency for only small parts of the continental shelf not wanted by other interests such as petroleum explorers, miners or fishers to be included in reserves.
An audio recording of the briefing can be heard here.