No Marine Protected Areas for Ross Sea – experts respond

The Antarctic Ross Sea will remain open to fishing in all areas following the failure of an international meeting to reach agreement on the establishment of Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean.

After 11 days of intense talks, the meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, concluded without representatives from 25 nations reaching a consensus on creating a network of Marine Protected Areas in the Southern Ocean (see reports from Reuters and BBC)

However the Commission has agreed to an ‘intercessional meeting’ to revisit the issue, which will take place in July in Germany .

The Science Media Centre collected the following reaction from Antarctic researchers.

Prof  Bryan C. Storey, Professor of Antarctic Studies and Director Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury, comments:

“It is a great shame that a decision was not reached, it was always going to be a big ask to get all 25 countries with varied fishing interests to agree.  However, there are many positives to come out of the discussions in that the US and NZ agreed on a combined MPA for the Ross Sea, and that an intercessional meeting will be held in July to advance the proposals.  I get the impression that an MPA for the Ross Sea will happen, it is just a matter of time.  This will not lead to a total ban on fishing in the Ross Sea but it is a step in the right direction.”

Associate-Professor Clive Evans, University of Auckland, comments:

“The failure of CCAMLR to reach a consensus on any of the three proposals for Antarctic Marine Protected Areas will be a disappointment to all who treasure Antarctica and wish to see its environs protected from exploitation.

“Nonetheless, it does provide a short window of opportunity for interested parties to strengthen their cases, whether they align with the current proposals or push for the establishment of true ‘no-take’ marine reserves, especially with respect to the Ross Sea.

“The failure to reach consensus reflect politics trumping science. Since discussions at CCAMLR nominally rely heavily on the best available scientific evidence, it behoves all members of the governing body to ensure they provide all relevant data to the Commission.

“The scientific data from New Zealand have been used to support its toothfish fishing industry in the Ross Sea, with a spokesperson for the industry voicing the opinion that fishing to date is without impact, even though NIWA models show Antarctic toothfish numbers are probably down 20% on what they were before commercial fishing began.

“One of the problems for New Zealand is that in presenting its case based on its own “best science” it is providing data for nations that wish to see exploitation continued. Put simply, if the New Zealand data for the Ross Sea indicate no effect, then why not continue fishing?

“Significantly, not all scientists agree with this “no impact” position. A group of international researchers studying Antarctic toothfish in McMurdo Sound (in the southern Ross Sea) over the last forty-odd years have published data showing a significant decline in their catch returns over the last decade, coincident with the rise of the toothfish industry.

“Rather than being discarded off-hand these results need to be assimilated into New Zealand’s best science case. If all is not well with the toothfish, then the argument for a protected area is strengthened.  At the very least our Government should put more resources into the McMurdo Sound scientific fishery (which acts independently of the industry) to get a broader picture of exactly what is happening to the Antarctic toothfish in our “last ocean”.”

Dr Victoria Metcalf, Lecturer in Animal Genetics, Lincoln University, comments:

“Today CCAMLR announced unsurprisingly that it had failed to reach a consensus on any of the proposed MPA up for discussion, including that for the Ross Sea, and despite its own deadline on itself for reaching such agreements by the end of 2012.

“It’s unsurprising that 25 countries failed to reach an agreement the first time these proposals were tabled, as politics are complex and the countries differ widely in their views on sustainability and environmental concerns and indeed their attitudes to what value there is in the Antarctic.

“I would like to see this not as a failure of those that lobby for the protection of places like the Ross Sea from human activities such as fishing nor as a victory for those that argue that commercial activities should be allowed in Antarctic waters for a multitude of reasons, that can all easily be debated against. Rather this is the first step in complex negotiations and neither ‘side’ has at present ‘won’.

“It is heartening that an interim meeting will be held in July next year to try and reach resolution although it’s actually a very short timeframe to further develop arguments and an ambitious target to reach consensus.

“Every day is however, critical for the Ross Sea, and for our planet. What’s concerning to me as an Antarctic marine biologist is that effectively most of our community of scientists have been excluded from engagement in this process, especially at a national level. Involvement seems to have typically come from association with vocal NGO’s, which may result in some unfortunate alarmist, activist labels that do not fairly represent our interests. Yet, I would argue that we may be the greatest stakeholders for Antarctic waters as collectively we hold the most experience of the riches these waters offer, their uniqueness, their fragility and the fact that there really is so much we just don’t know. The value in Antarctic waters undoubtedly lie, in mine and in the minds of by far the majority of Antarctic marine biologists I know, in its preservation, its potential for revealing insights into every aspect of biology, especially ecosystems in extreme environments, its potential as a canary in a coal mine to allow us to unravel the complexities of all the impacts of human change.

“The Ross Sea region isn’t just under threat from the impacts of fishing activities- rising sea temperatures, pollution, lower oxygen levels, and of greatest immediacy the effects of increasing acidity in the ocean, are all coalescing together to provide a cauldron for Antarctic fish and other biota to contend with. Some species may literally be under threat of extinction within just 20 years. I’m not convinced that the CCAMLR process is really considering the multi-factorial issues this situation presents to the Ross Sea.

“Isn’t it time our country took a more adult approach to our marine activities and really demonstrate the type of responsible environmental stewardship that we tout about frequently? We’re responsible for the toothfish fishery existing in the Ross Sea in the first place but this is a mistake that can be reversed. The Ross Sea is worth far more to us in monetary or more intrinsic value terms without fishing than with.

“Carolyn Schwalger continually proclaims that this is a proposal based on science- but it seems to be missing the input of a large proportion of scientists who do have a vested interest in the outcome. To me the biggest question that we should be asking ourselves in the next eight months is what many Antarctic scientists have already asked themselves – Should we even be there in the Ross Sea in any commercial capacity? The easy answer for most of us is an emphatic ‘No'”.