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Antarctic Marine Conservation Commission at Impasse Over Protected Areas

February 1, 2022 by Kate Michael
(Photo by Derek Oyen via Unsplash)

WASHINGTON — As global conservation and ecosystem protection efforts are gaining traction, discussions for creating dedicated areas for marine conservation around Antarctica are at an impasse, with nations unable to resolve conflicts between protection and rational use, and the future of an international organization at stake.

The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources, an international convention to protect marine life in the Southern Ocean established in 1982, recently concluded an annual meeting of its 26 member nations at which the establishment of MPAs, marine protected areas, was a hefty part of the agenda, though no agreement could be reached.

An MPA is a defined geographical area of water that is managed to achieve the long-term conservation of nature. To allow depleted populations to recover, or to protect vulnerable habitats, fishing and other human activity may be restricted there.

The adoption of new Antarctic MPAs currently requires consensus from all parties of the CCAMLR, however, and as the implementation of existing ones has already proven difficult and political pressures are mounting fresh challenges for fisheries management, catch limits, and ecosystem monitoring, “the pace in terms of establishing MPAs is slow and perhaps stalled,” according to CCAMLR Commission Chair Jakob Granit, also director general of the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management.

“Shifting geopolitical interests… are putting a new stress on the Antarctic system as a whole,” Granit admitted, though he stressed that CCAMLR members need to find a way to come out of this impasse, for the good of ocean ecosystems, planetary health, and the future of the commission itself.

The Southern Ocean, comprising a full 10% of the world’s ocean, remains one of the least-altered marine ecosystems on the planet. It is a complex and challenging body of water to govern, but nations agree its waters are vital to the health of the planet overall due to both currents that carry nutrients north of the equator as well as its role in regulating the climate.

CCAMLR nations negotiated the commission’s earliest agreements about the management and use of Southern Ocean resources, yet calls for more protectionist environmental protocols are increasing.

Three main protected areas around Antarctica have already come out of CCAMLR’s work, with its boldest project to date being the creation of the Ross Sea MPA, which came into force in 2017. This MPA was a breakthrough after years of tough negotiation, similar to recent discussions.

While nine potential MPA areas have been identified, Granit recently shared with The Wilson Center that three are currently under proposal, covering three million kilometers, or 1.75% of the world’s ocean. However, pressure exists between conservation interests and economic ones.

“This tension is not unique to the Antarctic situation,” Joji Morishita, Japanese commissioner to CCAMLR and professor at the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology said, citing pressure between environmental protection and the development of industry at odds in many countries.

Japan has been standing in the middle of MPA negotiations, Morishita said, in an effort to promote dialogue. Other nations have been unrelenting about the need for a more complete definition of an MPA, more data in regard to proposed MPAs and other concerns that impact their state interests.

“Views of CCAMLR membership are increasingly polarized,” Jane Rumble, U.K. commissioner to CCAMLR and head of the Polar Regions Department at the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office said.

“Many members feel that we should move toward protectionism,” she added. “We need to come up with a way to… balance protection and use.”

“The final goal or purpose is to have an effective system for both protection and rational use of our resources,” Morishita said, arguing for a decision that comes from consensus even if that “is sometimes tedious and difficult and requires a lot of effort.”

“But if we continue to keep polarization or tension, this affects other areas of CCAMLR,” Morishita admitted.

To continue discussions of marine special planning and MPAs, CCAMLR’s Scientific Committee Symposium will meet in early February.

Kate can be reached at kate@thewellnews.com

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