An international agreement to create two massive marine sanctuaries in the Antarctic that could protect over two million square kilometers in the region was weakened once again this week, potentially leaving the pristine waters—referred to by conservationists as the world's "Last Ocean"—open to overfishing, oil drilling, and humanity's rapacious hunger for resources in the years ahead.
Delegates from 25 nations converged this week for a week-long gathering of The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in Hobart, Australia to consider vast marine conservation proposals in the Ross Sea and waters off of East Antarctica.
“These are among our last intact marine areas, and they deserve meaningful, permanent protection, not halfway measures.” –Andrea Kavanagh, Pew Charitable Trusts
Though previous talks had already resulted in scaled back ambitions, hopes remained high for what proponents of the sanctuaries said could still be the largest marine conservation areas ever created. Those hopes, however, were partially dashed when the delegates from New Zealand proposed a “sunset clause," which would deem any agreement temporary, allowing the possible reopening of areas to fishing and drilling within 15 years.
This move, critics argue, renders the entire agreement moot as only permanent protection can save the area from industrial devastation.
“We are worried about the permanence of the marine protected areas as there is talk of 15 years or 50 years as a sunset clause,” Andrea Kavanagh, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ southern ocean sanctuary campaign, told The Guardian.
“These areas need to be permanent, any less than that is not good enough," said Kavanagh. "If you think of the life of some of these species, such as deep sea corals and toothfish, 15 years is ridiculous."
The 'sunset' clause by New Zealand follows a series of strains in the negotiations since last October, which have already diminished the strength of a possible agreement.
Earlier this summer, Russia and Ukraine vetoed a proposed fishing ban in the region and the overall area for the sanctuary has already been cut by 40%.
The remaining conservation area in question would still be the largest to date, but would only double the 1% of the world's oceans that are currently protected.
Meanwhile, the chair of CCAMLR Leszek Dybiec has already cast doubt that this round of talks will produce a meaningful agreement, saying it may be unrealistic to expect the 25 members to come to a consensus.
Of the two areas proposed, 1.3 million square kilometers in the Ross Sea and 1.6 million square kilometers off east Antarctica, Dybiec said only one will stand a chance.
"We believe in this year we have a bigger chance to reach compromise, maybe not for both MPAs but, for example, for the Ross Sea," Dybiec told reporters in Hobart.
"What is the issue is--I guess you'd say--is the political will," said CCAMLR scientific committee chairman Dr. Christopher Jones.
A failure to protect the entirety of this region would be a major blow to marine ecosystems, conservation experts argue.
"Last year I sailed through the Ross Sea," said Bob Zuur from WWF-New Zealand at a news conference Wednesday in Hobart, Australia. "I saw dozens of whales, hundreds of seals and albatrosses and thousands of penguins. And that was just the wildlife on top of the water. The wildlife on the seafloor rivals that of the tropics. This area is really the Serengeti of the southern seas."
The Ross Sea is often referred to as “The Last Ocean” as it is one of the only large ocean areas remaining that has gone largely untouched by industrial fishing or resource extraction.
“Countries are coming back to the table for a third attempt to agree on Antarctic marine reserves, and after investing significant resources over the past year studying and vetting those protections, it’s time to act,” Kavanagh said in a press statement. “These are among our last intact marine areas, and they deserve meaningful, permanent protection, not halfway measures.”