The Antarctic Ocean Alliance, a coalition of groups including Greenpeace, WWF and Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), has called for the world's largest marine reserve to be declared in Antarctica's Ross Sea to protect the delicate ecosystem.
The alliance calls on the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) to establish a fully protected marine reserve of approximately 3.6 million square kilometers of the Ross Sea region.
“The Ross Sea is one of the most amazing and relatively untouched marine environments on earth,” said the Alliance’s Chuck Fox.“ While there are two proposals on the table to protect some of it, our report shows that we need a much broader and ecosystems-focused approach if we are to ensure this environment remains healthy and stable.“
“The fate of the Antarctic’s Ross Sea is likely to be decided by 24 countries and the EU this year and the global public knows nothing about it,” said Alliance Campaign Director Steve Campbell. “Now is the time to protect this amazing environment but we’ll need the global public involved to make that happen.”
The alliance's video explains why protecting the Antarctic waters is so important:
The report (pdf) describes the Ross Sea area an an "biodiversity hotspot:"
The Ross Sea supports large proportions of the world’s populations of some of the most well-known and charismatic Antarctic species, including at least:
- 38% of the world population of Adélie penguins
- 26% of the world population of emperor penguins
- 30% or more of the world population of Antarctic petrels
- 6% of the world population of Antarctic minke whales
- 45% of the Southern Pacific population of Weddell seals
- 50% of the world’s Ross Sea killer whales (Type C)
The report indicates that while sealing and whaling were damaging to the area in the past, climate change and the recently developed industrial fishery are now the biggest threats to the environment.
In 1996, New Zealand began an experimental Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) fishery in the Ross Sea (one metric tonne expanding to 754 metric tonnes by 1999). In 2000, this fishery was no longer considered to be experimental and other nations’ fishers along with illegal vessels began to exploit the Antarctic toothfish in the Ross Sea.
As of 2011 an estimated 20% reduction in the size of the adult population (those that are old enough to reproduce) has already occurred, although there are not reliable science-based data on the original population size. The toothfish fishery is concentrated along the Ross Sea slope, in deep water. Scientists are now unable to catch adult and large sub-adult fish in southern McMurdo Sound where 200-500 per year were routinely caught in a scientific tag- release program that began in 1972.
In addition to warming waters and increased ocean salinity, ocean acidification is affecting the Antarctic area:
Ocean acidification is a direct outcome of the ocean absorbing the increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere resulting from human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels. It is a problem of enormous proportions and will impact on the biome of Antarctica in new and unique ways.
The global oceans are already around 30% more acidic than at preindustrial levels. Under the most likely CO2 emissions scenario, by the year 2100, acidification will cause the entire Southern Ocean to become undersaturated in aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate used by key species to develop their shells. The problem is likely to be particularly severe in this region because Southern Ocean levels of aragonite are already relatively low.
With such enormous variability, the Antarctic marine environment is under increasing pressure, and yet it offers scientists an unrivalled opportunity for research. Clearly the biological and physical complexity of these areas requires significant protection if these changes are to be documented and understood.